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? By John Dickinson

Back in the 1960s, the old AT&Ts Western Electric group demonstrated the Picturephone to a doubting world, and the world has remained doubtful ever since.

Thats because videoconferncing products developed since then have remained expensive and unpredictable systems that usually deliver small, fuzzy, jerky video images, often uncoordinated with peoples voices because of network latency and unreliability.

When the Internet came along, there was hope that webconferencing would fill the void, but it hasnt been very satisfactory, since it requires reserved bandwidth and separate telephone hookups for sound and relies on troublesome desktop technologies.

Of course, good old-fashioned telephone conference calls are reliable, but they just dont cut it with people who want to do business face to face.

With all that history, its hard not to be skeptical when news comes of telepresence, a video collaboration technology that is supposed to deliver high-definition images and stereophonic sound with enough realism to enable useful collaboration.

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

The Setup

Vendors as well known as Cisco Systems Inc., Polycom Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., and as little known as Teliris Ltd. and Codian Inc., are offering telepresence technology and services. The systems use a variety of technologies to deliver interactive video and sound signals that are realistic enough to make you almost believe youre sitting across the table from other conferees rather than across the world. Common to all of these systems is the use of high-definition television (HDTV) screens and cameras situated in such a way that participants 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 youd experience with ordinary videoconferencing technology virtually disappear with telepresence systems.

Telepresence

Telepresence setup from Cisco Telepresence configurations can use just one HDTV screen or as many as 16. Screens are positioned to be at eye level with seated conferees, and the images on the side-by-side screens are stitched together so that viewers feel as if theyre looking at one very wide screen. Speakers are positioned so that the sound seems to emanate from the mouth of the person in the image, not from the center of the table or some random location in the room.

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