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Why is Telepresence Utilization Better?

First the video conferencing usage data. Andrew did primary reserch, collecting information from 1,000 video conferencing systems used by five large pharma enterprises, with some of the data going back 3 years. If you just add up all the usage data and divide by the number of weeks it averages out to the 10.5 hours/month quoted in my previous posting.

But Andrew pointed out in our call that the real data has a wide distribution, and he provided me with the chart below which shows a histogram of the usage and how diverse it is. Note that nearly 50% of the rooms are using less than 2 hours per month. These rooms are substantially underutilized. No wonder some companies don't think video conferencing is worthwhile.

OK, how about the Telepresence data? It's hard to get an equivalent set of data for Telepresence because deployments are new and there are not so many endpoints. But Andrew indicated his data came from five large companies including pharmaceutical companies and a bank. All the enterprises indicated that utilization of established telepresence rooms is much higher, and the results of this survey aggregated to the 110 hours per month shown in my last posting. Agreed, this data is not as solid, but my own conversations with HP and with other companies has indicated the same kind of high utilization for the Telepresence rooms.

So the next question my interested and always-polite blog responders posed is why is this so? And don't I think that just popping out that standard definition video conferencing set and plopping in an HD version will have the same effect?

Well no I don't. Here is what I think.

Think about watching a movie. Watching a movie could mean I was sitting in an IMAX theater fully encased in the video images with booming surround sound totally focused on the experience. It also could mean I was at the dentist watching on the TV up in the corner with subtitles because the noise of the drill is too loud to hear the sound. In my opinion they are not the same experience.

OK, one of the reasons that a telepresence room has higher utilization statistics is because it is not used for non-video meetings. You can do this with standard video conferencing as well, but few do it. Everyone shouts that we need that conference room for local meetings and we need local control of its schedule. So when I want to do a video call, the room is already booked for a staff meeting or a birthday party.

But I think the real reason the Telepresence rooms are booked is because the technology really works. When I interviewed HP, Cisco and Polycom, they all told me that the design teams involved in creating the telepresence environment included psychologists, cinimatographers and acousticians. The resulting designs worry about lighting levels, lighting distribution, color temperature, echo, stereo imaging, eye contact, image size, paint color and many more factors that create the telepresence experience.

In my experience, most of these topics are ignored in standard video conferencing rooms. I can't tell you how many rooms I have seen with a board-room table down the middle and the video system way down at the end. The video participant gets to see the end-on view of the table and some folks in the room may even be hidden behind others. One of the keys in a video meeting is to be able to watch someone speak, so you can pick up the visual clues and body language associated with the conversation. With the board-room table setup you sometimes can't even tell who is talking! This doesn't work.

I have been in other video conferencing rooms where the camera is mounted up in the corner somewhere or placed on the table between the displays. This ruins the eye contact. When a participant is looking at your image on the screen he is looking off to the side of the camera and you can't tell he is talking to you, at least not by his eyes. Once again much of the video information is lost.

This week my wife and I went to Lowell for a few hours and stumbled across the filming of "This Side of the Truth". A six block area was blocked off and there were tractor-trailers parked everywhere. The street was covered with power cables and lights and reflectors and cameras etc. Why don't they just film this with a camcorder? Apparently you have to pay attention to the details to get that rich immersive image and sound that lets us forget we are at the movies and participate in the story for a few hours. That's what Telepresence is doing too.

So can we reproduce this with a one-screen HD system? Well yes you can get there. But you have to pay attention to all those design elements that the Telepresence designers included. And when you get done your costs may approach theirs.

Telepresence needs to be considered a strategic tool. If you can get by with an HD system, by all means do so. But if you are betting your strategic goal of increased productivity or better customer contact or high touch access to experts or whatever it is, don't fool around with partial answers. Get a technology that will be transparent and will provide the real people-to-people connections you need. Combined with the right strategic initiative the technology will turn out to be a bargain.