Not convinced about Telepresence!

Those of us who grew up with the co-located meeting never stopped complaining about how unproductive the experience was.  We spent years trying to improve the level of interactivity with whiteboards, flip charts, projectors and decision support systems to increase the level of participation and improve the quality of decisions. 

With the advent of virtual meeting technologies we found that not only could we reduce travel but we could actually improve the dynamics of meetings,  web conferencing made it easier for multiple participants to take a share at presenting, instant messaging made it easier to access specialists and for participants to capture thoughts and questions without disrupting the flow of the meeting.

Those of us who discovered multiple displays realized that we could improve productivity even more by using a web conference to share one screen while having video on another and reference materials readily to hand on a third screen.

Finally those of us who work from home found that they could now work in a quiet environment, without disrupting the rest of the office with noisy meetings and reduce travel to zero.

Then along comes Telepresence,  a return to the worst of the traditional meeting:

  1. you now need to schedule time for a meeting, rather than just having one as the need arises
  2. travel to the nearest Telepresence suite, rather than do it at your desk
  3. sit in simulated round table environment optimized for seeing people, rather than an effective meeting

Of course I realize that Telepresence is not targeted at the types of meetings most of us have, its focus is on those very infrequent meetings where every subtlety of human interaction needs to be perfectly communicated, the major deal, the negotiation, the critical agreement.  That said I have two concerns:

  1. Telepresence will take the focus off designing environments to deliver really effective collaboration and switch focus to simulation of an environment that delivered pretty ineffective collaboration in the first place
  2. Telepresence will soak up investment that could be spent to much better effect at the desktop

For myself I think we are already very close to perfection at the desktop, to a degree that will meet the needs of all but the most demanding scenario.  Here’s my vision for desktop collaboration:

  1. 3 displays – 1 for video, 1 for web conferencing and 1 for reference material
  2. A high quality camera and enough bandwidth to upload video at 30 frames per second 640*480 resolution, this means that you see 4 high quality images on the monitor you designate for video.  I watch a lot of videos of talking heads at 640*480 and I find it pretty easy to engage with the person talking at this resolution and I can always full screen the image if I really need to
  3.  Enough bandwidth to download 4 streams at 30FPS and 640*480.  The vast majority of my meetings have 5 or fewer attendees
  4. A web conferencing solution that’s really easy to use to initiate ad-hoc meetings straight from my IM presence list (scheduled meetings are already easy)
  5. A web conferencing solution that makes it easy for all attendees to easily share information with each other, I.e. less focus on the idea of a single presenter
  6. An integrated high quality audio solution that provides easy recording and publishing of the meeting and that doesn’t degrade because of the web conference or the video
  7. An easy way (drag and drop) to share documents, web pages, etc with participants as the meeting progresses
  8. A good way for participants to type notes, questions, comments, surveys etc as the meeting progresses
  9. A Tablet that allows for easy markup of shared content and the freeform interactivity of the whiteboard or flip chart

My guess is that a setup like this will cost the average home worker less than $300 per year within a couple of years, and that’s probably 1/1000 th the cost of a Telepresence environment and in most respects it provides a more effective solution.

For another similar perspective check out this article by Melanie Turek from Frost and Sullivan, where she says:

Telepresence is getting so much play these days, it’s hard not to buy into the hype. But I’m a skeptic when it comes to this high-end and high-cost equipment, which does look great, but which also solves a problem most companies don’t actually have. When it comes to video conferencing, users want a basic level of quality—not a negligible point, given how long it’s taken for the technology to deliver on that expectation. But today’s high-definition systems (and even many standard definition ones) address that issue well: They deliver TV-quality audio and video with the touch of a remote-control button. That’s all most end users really want or need.

If you are interested in the concept I described of a web conferencing solution that’s much more interactive, ie allows multiple people to share content with each other in real-time check out this solution from Perspective Labs.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Forget Telepresence, just go High Definition. Endpoints are now well under $10k (see LifeSize Communications). Its pretty amazing to hear a whisper and be able to read a typed memo held up in front of the camera. Try that with a webcam.
    Agree that it really would be nice to see this get down to the desktop. I think I read somewhere that Intel or maybe Nvidia was going to start adding a specialized chip so that standard PCs could handle H.264 more easily…key to keeping HD at a reasonable bandwidth. However bandwidth is still a bottleneck with point to point HD conferences coming in at about 1 MB/s each way.
    I don’t understand why we are not seeing better webcams or webcam software with all the improvement in technology. While more prevalent, core Desktop video has not improved much over what you could do with CU-SEEME 5 years ago.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I guess with multi-cores even standard desktops will be able to deal with H.264 pretty soon if not already and lots of countries already have 1MB/s upstream and much more down. In the UK I still am a way off that but once BT have their MPLS backbone installed, hopefully we will see some further improvements in the local loop. At that point it should take off. I generally think in terms of 3 year cycles, my feeling is we will see HD to the home office in 3 years.

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