Published in IT/AV Report, Fall 2008

Telepresence Of Tomorrow
By Marc Trachtenberg

Exciting technology is going places.

Telepresence, executed correctly, enables intimate, intuitive and effective interactions over great distances without the need for physical travel. It is a technology that can not only fundamentally change the way a company conducts business, but can also help save cost while at the same time reducing a company’s carbon footprint, a responsibility that every company should be taking quite seriously in today’s environmentally conscious world.

It’s Not Fiction

Admittedly, this sounds more like something you would see in the movies: a fictional solution created to facilitate an improbable plot. In fact, however, it is far from fictitious, or even new, for that matter. Telepresence technology has been around for nearly a decade, but recent economic challenges have heightened focus on this emerging technology and the implications it has for business growth and communications. As with many technological solutions, telepresence is finally gaining the attention that eventually will catapult it into the mainstream market.

As a lifelong technologist, I became fascinated with the potential of this solution from the first time I envisioned it. Through many years of research, I learned about the nuances of eye contact, subtle facial expressions and body language. Immediately, I recognized that telepresence could open up possibilities for interacting over significant distances at a level that no other solution in the world can deliver.

But, as this technology continues to emerge, it is important for the industry to be held to a standard that ensures that, when a company makes the investment in telepresence, it is getting the full potential of this powerful tool. We call that “true telepresence.” Let’s define the true telepresence standard and why that matters to how you run your enterprise.

Telepresence Market, Drivers

According to market research firm Frost & Sullivan, the telepresence industry will grow by 850% worldwide over the next five years, from $145 million in 2007 to $1.4 billion in 2013. Many market experts believe that it will be external issues, such as rising fuel prices and increasing media scrutiny on the role of the private sector in driving positive societal change, that will generate this demand.

For example, the price of crude oil reached $142 a barrel recently, whereas jet fuel (invariably slightly more expensive) rose to $170 a barrel. This is a 430% rise on the $31 a barrel of jet fuel cost in 2003. This is alarming in itself, but some analysts are predicting that crude oil will rise to $200 a barrel.

The knockoff effect is that business travel costs, particularly from aviation, look set to soar. Consequently, governments across the world are actively looking to decrease reliance on imported gas and oil as a means of protecting their economies, and businesses are looking to reduce travel costs.

This presents an opportunity for the industry to position telepresence as a solution to rising fuel costs. We believe this can be achieved by a united industry voice that argues the need for telepresence to be integrated into an organization’s, or even a country’s, transport infrastructure. This united stance would open up telepresence procurement opportunities, because many CEOs and other senior decision makers tend to delegate IT procurement to their IT department. By contrast, the majority of issues that are impacting company performance, such as managing rising fuel costs, are discussed at board level.

Media Scrutiny


Increasing media scrutiny on both businesses and government in driving positive societal change and leading by example will also drive demand for telepresence. For example, the UK government recently experienced a PR disaster by failing to reduce business travel costs and meet its own carbon reduction targets. The story, which was featured extensively in the national and regional press, highlighted that the civil servants spent £2.5m on air travel between April 2006 and December 2007 and that 15 government departments had increased, rather than decreased, their carbon emissions in the last year.

The story was quite damaging and drew into question the UK government’s environmental credentials. Until now, listed companies have had the luxury of not releasing similar information into the public domain, but that is all set to change. For example, the forthcoming Companies Act and draft Climate Change Bill will have a major impact on UK businesses because they will make all listed companies duty-bound to report more fully on their corporate and social behavior. When this legislation comes into effect, telepresence will become a very attractive proposition to any company that wants to avoid any attention related to its environmental record.

An increase in the number of telepresence customers will provide the platform required for greater customer insights. For example, analyst firm Canalys plans to launch a quarterly market-tracking scheme in the form of a new website called Cadefero. Canalys will send telepresence surveys to “end users,” asking questions such as, “How do you define telepresence and how do you use telepresence?” The results of the research will be published online. This kind of “end user” market research will form the basis of future technological innovation, new product development and increased market segmentation.

Introduction To Telepresence

Short of having access to the Canalys research, let’s define telepresence as a technology-based solution, but the interesting thing about it is that the goal and purpose is to make the technology invisible. What do we mean by that? In order to be successful and truly change the way companies do business across distance, telepresence must ensure that the technology in no way interferes with the meeting conversation; it must be natural. Additionally, it must be completely reliable and cost less than a face-to-face meeting. This is a simple statement, but one that takes into account several factors that together accomplish the details that make up a natural meeting experience.

No matter how many participants or how many site locations; a true telepresence meeting must have precise and uncompromised eye-to-eye contact. Participants must be able to look in any direction and at any site location and see eye-to-eye, not only the person directly in front of them, but the people at the end of the table, off to the sides and vice-versa. Each person also has to be able to hear all the participants directionally, from their location at the virtual table, and interrupt each other without delay...all interactions that we take for granted during a face-to-face meeting.

All of these technological challenges were the root of why many lost confidence in traditional videoconferencing, a technology solution plagued with blurry images, out-of-sync lip movements, frustrating audio delays and shoddy sound quality. Today’s technological advances that make up true telepresence solve these visual and audio inadequacies, and feed into the goal of capturing non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body movements—the interactions that people would interpret and engage in if they were sitting across the table.

Creating this “inert” technology to execute a natural meeting experience is only part of the solution. A telepresence meeting is only valuable if it’s reliable. Reliability is not a sidebar to true telepresence; it’s required. Like telepresence technology, a managed service must be inert and allow people to walk into a meeting, sit down and conduct business without a hitch, whenever and for as long as they need.

The Technology

From an audiovisual perspective, telepresence features directional sound and HD, broadcast-quality video that allows conversations to take place in real time and participants to make eye contact. As a result, the meeting experience is transparent, intimate and effective. Essentially, a true telepresence meeting evokes an emotional experience, whereas traditional videoconferencing, with its lifeless images and jerky sound, historically could not accomplish that.

As telepresence becomes better understood, prospective customers will have a heightened level of awareness and this will have an impact on the telepresence procurement process. Rather than telepresence vendors delivering a slick presentation on telepresence and its applications, prospective customers will lead future sales demonstrations by asking vendors thoughtful and probing questions about their products.

We have already started to see evidence of this, with a number of prospective customers asking such questions as:

• Does the system recreate a natural, seamless feeling of “being there,” a fully immersive, fuss-free, in-meeting experience as though all participants were around a table in the same room?

Managed Service?

• Is there a guarantee of no detectable sound delay, no matter how great the distance?

• Is there direct eye contact with all participants, regardless of where they are sitting?

• Is there reliability in excess of 99% to ensure it is seen as a true substitute for travel?

• Is there a managed service to guarantee that reliability? (A service that provides a one-stop shop to address problems, set up meetings and perform maintenance?)
• Can up to five or six locations take part in the same meeting without voice/video switching?

• Is there full interconnectivity with traditional videoconferencing systems and other telepresence systems?

• Are you aiming to develop the flexibility to link up with other telepresence systems, without degrading the quality of the experience?

As a result of heightened user awareness, we can expect to see a new level of awareness and appreciation in relation to the different telepresence products offered by vendors.

Beyond the specific technology aspects of what we call “the front wall,” an increasing number of our advocates are starting to ask, “So what is next for telepresence? Where is it going?” Yes, there are the small details such as decreasing the bezel size between screens...possibly making them disappear entirely. But this is not the essence of the future of telepresence.

The next “leap across the chasm” for telepresence is twofold: It’s in extending immersive collaboration tools used in a face-to-face meeting to telepresence environments, as well as in innovation around reducing network costs.

In fact, the first multi-touch surface computing environment for telepresence that allows participants to collaborate in a natural and immersive way by sharing all types of content during a telepresence meeting was introduced this year. This means that documents, such as text, images, video and audio, can be uploaded and shared with telepresence users across the world, as if they were in the same room.

By using a unique gesture recognition, which allows users to interact naturally with intuitive motions, participants can use the new multi-touch offerings to move a document around and pass it to other participants in other locations—even other countries—by pushing, dragging or turning the document. Pages can be turned and the content can be zoomed in and out.

New Means Of Collaborating

This entirely new means of collaborating will allow organizations to bring together their best scientific, creative, financial and technical minds across the world to formulate strategies and develop new products in a fraction of the time and cost, bringing immersive collaboration to their fingertips like never before.

Even more importantly, from a network perspective, a current cost barrier to telepresence is the high cost of bandwidth. One way to drive down this cost would be to run telepresence over the internet. Imagine a telepresence offering that cut the monthly network costs in half! This is one more way that telepresence will break new ground to ensure that telepresence rooms become as common as a regular conference room in every major company across the globe.

Governments around the world could also play a major role in driving down the cost of telepresence through the introduction of tax incentives. For example, proposals have been put forward to the UK government by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international conservation charity, for an Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) for companies that purchase telepresence solutions. (ECAs currently enable a business to claim 100% first-year capital allowances on their spending on qualifying plant and machinery.)

Conclusion

The future of true telepresence really comes down to the goal of every efficient enterprise: seamless interaction. This means more collaboration, a higher level of connectivity and the exchange of ideas in an open, uninterrupted forum. Although this is a tall order for providers, it is how we see telepresence becoming a mainstream and widespread success. To achieve this goal, our industry must adhere to the strict, uncompromised guidelines that are defining true telepresence.

Like any new product in an evolving business space, telepresence has its fair share of both hype and misrepresentation. This makes it a fertile breeding ground for inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

Countering and overcoming those arguments probably is the biggest single challenge for all telepresence vendors as they develop the market. The best way to achieve this is by working with credible third-party organizations and individuals who can endorse the idea that telepresence and its transformational qualities are light years ahead of anything that has gone before.

Marc Trachtenberg, CEO/cofounder New York City-based Teliris, has more than 22 years of experience related to the deployment of leading-edge technologies in visual communications, collaboration, data infrastructure and transport systems. Recognized as a telepresence visionary, he was instrumental in developing and launching the first virtual meeting solution more than nine years ago.


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