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John Bartlett
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John Bartlett | February 22, 2008 |

 
   

Telepresence: Beautiful And Expensive

Telepresence: Beautiful And Expensive The quality is stunning, but so is the price, and the impact on your network

The quality is stunning, but so is the price, and the impact on your network

This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Business Communications Review.

Immersive large-format face-to-face videoconferencing systems have been around for a number of years now, but the new telepresence systems from Hewlett Packard and Cisco, introduced last year, are really giving this technology a boost in visibility. With these two market powerhouses pushing the technology, telepresence has suddenly become a conversation topic in boardrooms around the world.

Those who have tried the new systems find the experience startlingly good, and a big step up from older videoconferencing. The idea of high-quality, face-to-face meetings conducted at a distance over the network is compelling, especially in these times of high fuel costs, increasingly difficult travel, and a growing awareness of our travel’s impact on the environment.

But this kind of good news always comes at a cost. The systems are quite expensive, and the enterprise network must be prepared for the demands of this new application. It’s no exaggeration to say that telepresence, which depends on very low packet loss, very low latency and minimal jitter (variation in latency), will be the toughest application your network has ever had to support. That top-level execs will literally see the results of your efforts in their telepresence sessions ups the ante even further.

Enterprises need to take a hard look at how this new application will be integrated with the existing network and with the applications currently running on it, both to ensure the quality of the telepresence experience and to prevent impacts from telepresence on the performance of existing business-critical applications.

Isn’t This Just High-end Videoconferencing?

Many of us have had the experience of using a standard videoconferencing system and being frustrated with the complexity of the setup. With such a small screen, it’s hard to tell which person at the remote conference room table is which and it’s hard to distinguish who is speaking. We often wonder if it is any better than just having a good telephone conference. But to answer the question above: No, telepresence is not just high-end videoconferencing.

Have you ever been to an iMax theater, where you are surrounded by the movie screen, and felt like you were falling or leaning as the image shifts around you? When there is that much screen you forget that you are sitting in a theater seat, and start to believe you are on that little biplane flying through the Grand Canyon.

Now let me set your expectations down a bit: Telepresence isn’t an iMax theater, but the idea is the same. The goal of telepresence is to provide an immersive experience—that is, one with sufficiently powerful audio and visual effects so that you feel you are together in the same room.

Telepresence vendors Hewlett Packard, Cisco and Polycom told me about how they had involved cinematographers and/or psychologists to help them design these systems, and the results are impressive:

  • The full-sized images of the remote participants are very lifelike.
  • The audio is very clear, and provided on multiple channels, so that a person’s voice comes from the direction of their screen image.
  • The lighting is set up to make you look good without makeup, and to light faces so there are no deep shadows.
  • Attention is paid to eye contact, so that when you look at a remote participant’s image, they see you looking (nearly) at them, and vice versa.

    All these factors enhance the communications, and make you feel like you really met with those remote folks, looked them in the eye, and had a good discussion. The accumulation of these cues (visual, auditory, eye contact, etc.) takes us across a threshold of perception that is more than an incremental improvement. It allows us to believe at some level that we are meeting together.



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