Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

It's still not cheap, but telepresence technology takes videoconferencing a giant step forward. And did we mention that it's really cool?

If necessity really were the mother of invention, enterprises and small businesses would by now have highly functional, standardized videoconferencing and collaboration technology at their disposal. Instead, travel across the continent and around the world remains the dominant collaboration paradigm, despite the ever-increasing pressure of time-consuming security requirements and budget-killing airfare and hotel prices.

Back in the 1960s, the old AT&T Co.'s Western Electric Group demonstrated its Picturephone to a doubting world, and the world has remained doubtful ever since. That's because videoconferencing systems developed since then have remained expensive and unpredictable, gadgets that usually delivered small, fuzzy, herky-jerky video images, often uncoordinated with people's voices because of communications latency and unreliability.

When the Internet came along, there was hope that Web conferencing might fill the void, even though it lacks the collaborative impact of video images, relying solely on shared documents, especially presentations. Web conferencing has not been very satisfactory, requiring reserved bandwidth, separate telephone hookups for sound and notoriously troublesome desktop technologies.

Of course, good old-fashioned telephone conference calls are reliable and useful, but they just don't cut it with people who want to do business face to face.

With all that history, it's hard not to be skeptical when news comes along of "telepresence" systems, video-collaboration technology that delivers high-definition video images and stereophonic sounds with enough realism to enable useful collaboration to occur.

Telepresence is expensive, requires two or more dedicated conference rooms outfitted with specialized equipment (or in some cases, custom-built to house the equipment) and often runs on proprietary network technology. But it's such a vast improvement over any previous video-based collaboration system that enterprise users are quickly signing up.

The setup

Vendors as well known as Cisco Systems, Polycom and Hewlett-Packard, and as little known as Teliris and Codian, are creating and offering telepresence technology and services. The systems they sell use a variety of technologies to deliver interactive video and sound signals that are realistic enough to make you almost believe you're sitting across the table from other conferees, rather than across the world (see photos below and on page 2).

Common to all of these systems is the use of high-definition television (HDTV) screens and cameras situated in such a way that conferees sitting diagonally across from each other can see each other directly, without appearing to be off to the side somewhere looking straight ahead into nothingness. The odd angles you'd experience with ordinary videoconferencing technology virtually disappear with telepresence systems.

Telepresence configurations can use as few as one HDTV screen or as many as 16. Screens are positioned to be at eye level when local conferees are seated, and the images on the side-by-side screens are "stitched" together so that viewers feel they're looking at one very wide screen. Speakers are positioned so that the sound appears to emanate from the mouth of the person at the remote site who is talking, not from the center of the table or some random location elsewhere in the room.

Cisco TelePresence meeting room
A meeting room equipped with a Cisco TelePresence system.
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