As a result of my “Clash of the VC Titans” mini-series I have receive some questions on what telepresence REALLY is. To some, it’s Telepresence, a product made famous by Cisco, comprising of multi-camera, multi-codec, multi-screen, fancy-shmancy meeting rooms allowing people to communicate in high definition over dedicated networks. To others, its telepresence, a term used to describe a user experience where people can collaborate in a high fidelity, highly interactive session, with audio and video technologies that allow a person to feel present and to give the appearance of presence at any physical location.
All telepresence systems aim to provide convincing stimuli, such that the user will perceive no difference between physical and virtual presence. In fact, even before they were known as “telepresence systems” most of the modern communication systems were trying to preserve some sense of telepresence (for instance, “talking to someone” on the telephone).
Nature’s Telepresence @ Tel-Aviv harbour (CC)
A few known factors play a big part in creating that illusive “telepresence” effect:
- Screen size is very relevant to maintaining the “immersion” feeling. The bigger the better. Take IMAX for example.
- Field of view is very important, as the user’s view should be filled as much as possible with the remote location, and viewpoint has to correspond to the orientation and movement of the user. Screen size assists in this and most telepresence systems further increase the field of view by aligning a few screens side by side. Also, the use of multiple cameras helps with covering more of the field of view.
- Audio is usually much easier to manipulate. Today’s high fidelity (often dubbed “high definition”) audio utilizes multiple microphones and speakers spread across the room for their in stereo and/or surround systems. This enables sound to effectively imitate a true “conference” experience.
- Data collaboration can be achieved rather easily in terms of sharing documents or real-time feedback between remote parties. However, “real” collaboration, like the one that happens daily in real-life meetings, still requires quite a complicated solution. Whiteboards that enable remote parties to draw on simultaneously or shared desktops that can be used by multiple parties are already available, but they are not part of even the most high-end telepresence systems.
- Manipulating objects is one of the trickiest parts of telepresence systems. Although not necessary in a “regular” video conference, the ability to handle a remote object is an important aspect of a “real” experience. Systems with wired gloves which sense movement with sensors (like the popular Wii remote) can send that data to the other side, and some kind of robot can then imitate those movements. This is known as teleoperation, and comes in handy in telemedicine applications such as telesurgery.
The High-Def Bridge by Gary Reighn. Image: Electronic House.
If the above sounds like something out of Star Trek, you get the message. Telepresence (that is, with a “t”) is a great concept, but one that is reserved for researchers and analysts. A more practical approach, which tries to put some of the above into practice, has been evolving since the early 90s, as applications such as video conferencing, telemedicine, eLearning, entertainment, and others have been benefiting from it.
One can argue that today’s telepresence systems leave too much for the imagination, as we are still quite far from that “in-person meeting” experience everyone is after. In addition, the technology is still quite complicated, and the user must master it in order to truly collaborate in a “telepresence” fashion. If I get back to the plain old telephone, “talking on the phone” is as seamless as off the phone (with the exception of dialing and holding the handset). But I guess that with time and technology, using telepresence can become as seamless.
Until giant companies like HP and Cisco jumped on the telepresence wagon a few years ago, it remained quite the unfulfilled buzz. But ever since, it is all over the place, including media coverage, websites, user groups, etc. Nowadays everyone who’s anyone has a “telepresence” solution, including network companies (Cisco, Nortel), traditional video conferencing companies (Polycom, Tandberg) and many others. Unfortunately for their competition, Cisco was the one clever enough to take the industry term and use it as their product name (that’s “Telepresence”, with a capital “T”).
Matt Harding dancing over Telepresence @ Yahoo headquarters. (CC)
So is a big screen on my desk showing 720p high definition video a “telepresence” experience? Definitely not. But then again I don’t work for the marketing department of any video conferencing vendor. Telepresence usually involves 2 or more participants on each side (usually 6 in each meeting room, 2 per camera and screen) using dedicated MPLS connections and similar room configuration (so that the video on the other side is seen as an “extension” to the room) to collaborate with each other using video and audio conferencing.
Therefore it is easy to see that video conferencing systems that support HD don’t always offer a “telepresence” experience, HD systems with more than one screen can’t always be considered “telepresence systems” and small HD systems for the desk don’t always provide “personal telepresence”. In fact, the experience is created by various factors, which video is only a part of.
For instance, a “telepresence room” makes a lot of sense, as factors such as lighting and environment noise dramatically change the overall experience. However the ability to hold meetings in a dedicated holodeck-like room just like in Star Trek is offered by only a handful of vendors. Therefore, it is easy to see that telepresence is an experience that big conferencing system integrators like Cisco and HP should probably assemble.
When people compare telepresence to high def video conferencing (as I have in my mini-series), they should carefully define what telepresence is (and isn’t). Telepresence is NOT just a high quality (and expensive) version of video conferencing. Actually, it may as well be, because most users in the enterprise world are not in real need of telepresence, but are “pushed” there by marketing hype.
A real telepresence experience has a lot of advantages, but it also lacks in many areas. This is to be anticipated, as its objectives are far more than “just” visual communication. As I have already written, the question of superiority in that clash of titans remains to the victor, but we should at least set our definitions correctly before we jump into the ring.