Telepresence—The Next Best Thing To Being There

Conniemoore_2 by Connie Moore

A while back, my husband and I were driving back from a sporting event when I noticed that he was talking about work. This was a surprise because he almost never talks about his job, particularly on weekends when he is having fun. I was only half listening, but all of the sudden I sat up and realized he was talking about telepresence—a technology that I'm very interested in. This, too, was a real surprise because my husband is a true Luddite when it comes to any type of technology. (No joke—for example, he keeps his cell phone turned off so he can "save" the battery. It drives me nuts when I need to reach him urgently.)

It turns out that he had just participated in a TelePresence meeting (powered by Cisco). As a DOD contractor, he used a government owned TelePresence room at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington DC. From there, they linked to a TelePresence room in Minneapolis where they met with another contracting firm. The company didn't own a TelePresence location, but had rented a TelePresence room at the Minneapolis airport.

My husband—who generally does not like technology unless it is effortless, fun to use, and has been widely adopted by just about everyone else on the planet—was absolutely thrilled about this TelePresence meeting. He was so-o-o-o-o impressed. While raving about how life-like the technology was, my husband also observed that if everyone used telepresence there would be a whole lot less business travel. We both agreed that less business travel would immediately improve our family's quality of life—and the quality of life of just about every other business professional we knew. (If you want an earful about the current state of travel from a couple of Forrester analysts, take a look at Delayed Flights, Canceled Flights. Enough! and What Happened To The Airline Industry's Business Intelligence?)

[Before I go much further into this post about telepresence, I want to clear up the terminology. Telepresence, the technology, is very-high-resolution video conferencing that gives the participants an immersive experience, making the senses feel as if the meeting is happening in person.  A number of vendors offer telepresence products, including Tandberg Experia, Polycom RealPresence, Cisco TelePresence, Teliris VirtualLive and HP Halo. Note also that Cisco's telepresence product is cleverly named TelePresence—which can lead to some confusion about just what are we talking about. In this instance, I am talking about telepresence, the technology, but both of my examples involve the Cisco TelePresence product. Also, note that this stuff is not cheap. A telepresence implementation can easily run $300K; but can just as easily be offset if your organization requires a lot of business travel between fixed locations.]

Last fall, several of my colleagues and I got a high-profile chance to check out Cisco's TelePresence product. The stakes couldn't have been much higher because we were invited to a discussion with John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, using a TelePresence link between Cisco's offices in California and Massachusetts.

As you can imagine, we went into this meeting with lots of energy—it's not every day you get to chat with Cisco's CEO—but also the new video conferencing experience put a special buzz in the air. At this point you might be thinking, big deal—lots of companies use video conferencing and lots of people have video cameras at their PCs. But the marginal video conferencing systems that I've used that link conference rooms between different corporate locations are like Model Ts, while TelePresence is more like a Lamborghini. The different is almost indescribable.

But let me try anyway.

The telepresence room that my colleagues and I sat in looked like there was a wall of side by side flat panel TVs running down the length of a conference table. We all sat on one side of the conference table and the flat panel displays were on the other side. When the cameras were turned on in California, we saw what looked like the other half of the conference room table, with life-size electronic images of other people sitting in front of us. Although we all knew it was video, it felt like our colleagues and the Cisco exec on the other side of the table were really present—in the flesh—rather than electronic images

Adding to the sense of reality was Cisco's careful design of the rooms. Both rooms were painted the same color, the conference room table was the same design and color, and the chairs in both locations matched. This sleight of hand completed the illusion that we were all in the same room.

Now that I've spent the proverbial thousand words trying to describe telepresence, let me show you a Cisco TelePresence room.

Telepresence

As you can imagine, I was as thrilled with the experience as my husband was with his. Afterward, I wanted to grab everyone I saw and tell them about it. I kept thinking, this has got to be a better way to work than trying to use a marginal video conferencing connection, jumping on a plane to attend a 1-2 hour meeting in another city. Just about everyone I talked to was more interested in hearing more about telepresence. And interestingly, whenever I would talk about Second Life and Web 3D, they would change the subject to telepresence. People seem to really crave this virtual experience. But I did have one skeptic who asked an interesting question. He asked, "did the technology get in the way of the meetings?" I have to say that it actually did, at least in three instances:

  • Camera alignment. Although our overall experience was positive, we kept noticing that the people in the California location wouldn't look us in the eye. Instead, they seemed to be looking downward and to the left. The Californians actually thought they were looking us in the eye, but the camera alignment must have been off slightly, so it didn't appear that way to us. This body language faux pas was disconcerting and did get in the way of the meeting (slightly)—although we realized what was going on and didn't take offense.
  • Telephone participants. One of our Forrester colleagues couldn't get to a Cisco office and had to call into the meeting by phone. Although I announced her presence at the beginning of the meeting, it was awkward from start to finish. We lacked any visual cues that she was participating in the meeting, making it hard to open up the conversation so she could participate. I got her involved by asking direct questions, but the conversation seemed stilted whenever I did that. When she chimed in, it really did seem like the voice of God. The sound equipment was so good that her voice filled the room and really shook everyone up.
  • Lighting. All the participants in my husband's meeting thought the experience was a resounding success. But after the meeting one of them asked the people in Minneapolis why the room was so dark. They simply forgot to turn on the lights because the room seemed bright enough to them. Good old human error strikes again.

I give telepresence and TelePresence 5 stars and 2 thumbs up. I think it is a great technology that makes sense to road weary warriors, could make cents if your travel budget is out of sight, and has a strong green value proposition, too. During this election year. my vote is for many more meetings like this and way less time on planes. (And I really hope my side wins.)

Comments

re: Telepresence—The Next Best Thing To Being There

I've seen the high performance conferencing suite at Cisco too, and you're right, it's highly impressive.But it's also highly expensive. I suspect that video internet telephony is going to have overall a much bigger impact - Skype for starters, or commercial products using a simple webcam.At the major global company I used to work for, we did have senior business executives asking if we could support Skype for face-to-face conversations with their direct reports; and we did pilot a commercial web conference product with webcam support. I don't think we had them asking about high performance conferencing suites.

re: Telepresence—The Next Best Thing To Being There

Tony: I think your comment is astute. If the goal is making distance disappear, then every kind of video communication will help. I think of three tiers of video communications, each with its sweet spot (and of course cost). Information & Knowledge Management professionals should begin to put all four on the table:1. Telepresence: A high-end, totally immersive replacement to an in-person conference room meeting. Today, HP and Cisco telepresence works great for situations where a distributed creative or executive team must work frequently together. But it will move into more B2B and down market scenarios with cheaper solutions from companies like Teliris. And it might be that a company has three telepresence conference rooms and 50 HD video conferencing end points.2. HD video conferencing: Not your father's video conferencing. This is exactly what it sounds like -- a high-quality video conferencing experience, using flat screens, fast IP networks, and no audio lag to deliver a great experience for small teams. I personally see this as the most interesting product for "being there" for the rest of us. Video conference "end point" providers Tandberg and Polycom and a host of managed service providers like AT&T, Bell Canada, BT, Nortel, GlowPoint, and a gazillion others are there to help.3. Desktop video conferencing. This comes cheap and cheery with a webcam and a PC and a provider like Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo!Messenger, and MSN. And it comes dear with dedicated desktop video conference units from Tandberg and Polycom. Both scenarios will thrive, though I'd bet that the bottom-up version using a PC and webcam will make the most difference . . . once IT decides to open up the firewall to allow desktop-to-desktop connections.I would be remiss not to add that there are other video products that will show up and make a difference, including Microsoft RoundTable (a 360 degree camera for conference rooms); video feeds in Web conferencing suites like Cisco WebEx, Microsoft LiveMeeting, and new entrant DimDim; even mobile video, which might put the presenters' smiling face on a BlackBerry or iPhone.

re: Telepresence—The Next Best Thing To Being There

About six months I witness the wonder of videoconferencing when I was asked to deliver my lecture from my university to a high school via video conferencing. First I was thinking it was just a camera recording my lecture and will make the necessary editing to show the high school students but later I realized that I was interacting with the students live. Great technology

re: Telepresence—The Next Best Thing To Being There

Thanks for your comments about videoconferencing. I think this recession is going to force companies to at least consider and possibly pilot some type of high resolution videoconferencing solution. That's because travel budgets are being slashed or severely curtailed. If you look at the airlines' earnings, they are struggling now more than ever. In contrast, the telepresence vendors are on a roll. For example, Oslo-based telepresence vendor Tandberg just posted great results for Q4. Specifically, fourth quarter revenues were $225M compared with $192.9M in the same quarter last year, representing a 17% year over year growth.