Published May 2008

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Worlds Apart... But Across The Table.
By By David Danto

Telepresence changes the face of conferencing.

It has become clear that two distinct definitions of telepresence have formed. They are not necessarily at odds with each other, but the second is a slightly cynical version, couched in more specific and familiar terms used in video collaboration today.

Defining The Term

Definition Number One: Telepresence represents the use of a number of technologies, aesthetics and acoustics that together allow a person or people in one location to meet and collaborate with a person or people in another location (or locations), where the experience simulates all people being in the same location. Implied in this experience is the understanding that the technologies, aesthetics and acoustics involved in the simulation are, or should be, practically invisible to the users.

Definition Number Two: Telepresence is a videoconferencing industry buzzword that represents a class of products that purportedly perform much better than the perceived past videoconferencing norms. Any one of a number of differentiators (possibly including high-definition video, spatial audio, large screen displays, images projected or reflected in front of a camera’s eye line and/or other features) can be identified as the reason a product in the first person (your product) is truly telepresence, and the lack of any or all such differentiators can be identified as the reason a product in the third person (their product) is not truly telepresence.

Regrettably, some of the manufacturers in the space are using the term “telepresence” as a buzzword, even where it is not remotely appropriate. By any definition, telepresence requires a life-size element to be considered part of that category. However, one large manufacturer has decided to call all of its products “telepresence,” regardless of the number or size of the displays, and another manufacturer has begun referring to its executive desktop units as “personal telepresence.” This blurring of the lines may help these firms in their short-term marketing, but the confusion that will definitely ensue will hurt the conferencing industry in the long run.
It would be difficult to come up with a more attractive appeal than the one being used by the current telepresence manufacturers. In comparing themselves to traditional videoconferencing systems and products, they stress the following three points:

• The system will meet all of your visual conferencing needs with a quality that is almost lifelike, reducing the difficulties and expenses of traveling.

• Unlike past videoconferencing products, telepresence systems are reliable: The calls always go through.

• No specific training is required to use the systems. There are few, if any, control buttons. Just walk into the room and use it.

Videoconferencing is now able to replicate a convincing face-to-face experience.

Not Difficult

It is not difficult to understand why such a message is being widely embraced. Who wouldn’t want to invest in a technology that is 100% successful, 100% reliable and requires no knowledge to use?

Beyond these messages, though, there is a large list of advantages that a telepresence system will provide:


• A meeting’s remote participants typically will appear normal size, as if they were in the room with you.

• Visual details typically will be extremely sharp: You will be able to discern subtle changes in facial expression, which is a key part of interpersonal communication.

• Eye contact between local and remote participants typically is excellent. People generally will look like they are looking at whatever they are actually looking at; this is important when building consensus and trust during a meeting.

• Sounds typically are directional, just as they would be in a face-to-face meeting: Things happening to your left sound as if they are happening to your left, and you can hear sidebar conversations, just like in a same-room meeting.

• Visual images and sound will happen in virtually real time; there is no noticeable delay between participants over great distances. People can interrupt and challenge just like physically being there.

• Depending on the system and/or services, an operator or concierge may be at the customer’s disposal, connecting calls for him as quickly as he feels he needs them. As a user, it is just like walking into a meeting room and starting the conversation.

Experienced together, this list tremendously enhances the quality of a meeting with remote participation. Users will experience less “technology fatigue” than they would have in a traditional videoconference. Meetings will be more productive, livelier and more interesting than they may have been in the past. When used specifically in its optimal situation, comparing telepresence to a videoconference is like comparing a live orchestra to someone playing a harmonica.

Most of the conferencing industry has firmly embraced the “hype” of telepresence. If you are one of the new firms in the space, you’re quick to announce that your product is the best thing since sliced bread. If you’re one of the traditional conferencing manufacturers, you’re quick to embrace the onrush of new customers for whom you have a suite of solutions that includes telepresence, among other offerings. If you’re one of the industry analysts, you’re delighted with the excitement in the space you cover. Everybody is happy.

Truth or hype? The industry needs to decide if any top-of-the-line desktop HD videoconference system can accurately be referred to as “telepresence.”

Sounds Too Good

Remember what your parents said about things that sound too good to be true?
Telepresence systems perform well in very specific applications because of some very specific parameters. Veer from these parameters, even a little, and the experience collapses.

First of all, the manufacturers’ positioning that “telepresence is videoconferencing that works/is reliable” requires some scrutiny. Why has traditional VTC had reliability issues?

The most typical reason for videoconferencing failures is the lack of a robust network to support the calls. If your customer’s network can’t support IP calling rates between devices at 384KBps to 768KBps, how will it support telepresence calls requiring anywhere from 6MBps to 20MBps? He’ll either have to buy a whole lot of additional network infrastructure or move his telepresence calls to an off-premises (paid) network.

These are both models that the telepresence manufacturers suggest. They are also both models that would “fix” most of the problems experienced with traditional videoconferencing.
Another reason traditional videoconferences have failed is the inherent instability when trying to call infrequently used endpoints. As an example, your customer’s New York to London weekly call may usually work, but his annual Fiji to London call does not. Or similarly, regular internal calls work, but calls to a new customer or client site do not connect.

Does telepresence fix these problems? In the first example, telepresence systems are so expensive that your customer will never put one in his Fiji office or anyplace where there would be necessary but infrequent usage; the ROI would never be justified for the limited applications.

In the second example, unless a client has bought the identical product from the same provider that the end-point uses, it would take a string of minor miracles (involving connectivity, compatibility, bandwidth, etc.) to connect a telepresence system in his offices to one at the other site. Put simply, telepresence is like a luxury car where the steering wheel has been removed and you have about five destinations you can select with a single button on the dashboard: It’s luxurious, comfortable and very, very limited.

Challenges


Beyond the comparison to traditional videoconferencing, the basic telepresence concept presents some challenges in and of itself. When you do have two locations that always have to connect just to each other, each with a non-mobile compliment of staff, then telepresence is the clear answer for high quality, effective communications. But, what if you have three locations…or four?

Telepresence systems have really struggled with these multipoint scenarios. One solution is called “voice switched,” where a complex algorithm figures out who is speaking and makes sure that person is visible on one of the displays at each location. Another solution is “continuous presence,” where everyone at each participating site is visible (in a smaller image) at all times.

Although both of these solutions allow for multipoint meetings, this really isn’t telepresence anymore. In the first scenario, you have to sacrifice the eye contact with those who aren’t speaking, which, frankly, is sometimes more important than looking at who is speaking. In the second scenario, you’ve sacrificed life-sized images, directional audio and all of the other things meant to differentiate the experience.

In this frequent, real-world application, the whole reason a firm has invested heavily in a telepresence system is gone. Also gone is telepresence-favorable contrast with legacy videoconference systems that can do the same job with a rapid return on a much lower investment.

Learn More

The Interactive Multimedia Collaborative Communications Alliance (IMCCA), in conjunction with InfoComm International, is offering Telepresence@InfoComm08. During the full-day program on June 19, telepresence manufacturers will discuss present and future applications of telepresence technologies and services, and current telepresence users will share their case studies. Go to www.imcca.org/tpdaypgm for more details. To attend, go to www.infocommshow.org and register for InfoComm 08, then select the IMCCA educational event “Telepresence@InfoComm.” Attendees will be eligible to win one of two complete videoconferencing systems being provided by Polycom (HDX-4000) and Tandberg (1700 MXP).

David Danto is director of Global Multimedia Engineering for Lehman Brothers and director of Emerging Technology for the Interactive Multimedia Collaborative Communications Alliance (IMCCA).

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