How 5G will spur remote collaboration

The faster networks become, the harder it will be to distinguish telecommuting from being there.

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People have long dreamed of using broadband communication to reduce business travel, consult with distant specialists, and narrow the opportunity gap between urban and rural communities.

To be sure, broadband communication has not yet delivered everything it promises, but it has had a dramatic impact. Webinars and online document sharing are now common.

5G wireless could turn out to be a catalyst for taking broadband service to the next level, enabling higher speeds, ubiquitous access (from the office, home, and while mobile), and a new generation of remote collaboration features.

Lessons from false starts

The first forays into videoconferencing and telecommuting did not live up to expectations. During the 1970s, there was much excitement about end-to-end digital phone networks based on ISDN (integrated services digital network). The AT&T Picturephone was supposed to make video calling routine. It never achieved a critical mass of users.

IBM embraced telecommuting in the 1980s and began disposing of office space. Recently, IBM told telecommuters they need to return to offices. Apparently, IBM’s senior management has decided that full-time telecommuting is not the answer.  

During the 1990s, mobile phone magnate Craig McCaw, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, and Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal joined forces to build the Teledesic “Internet-in-the-sky” network. Teledesic was supposed to free people and businesses from being tied to big cities. The backers got cold feet when the Iridium and Globalstar worldwide mobile phone networks went belly up.

What did we learn from these experiences?

Technologists learned that there are multiple pieces to the telecommuting and remote collaboration puzzles. The networks, end user devices, and applications must all work together to deliver the right user experiences at the right prices.

Employers discovered that telecommuting and remote collaboration are as much about culture as about technology. Commitment to the organization’s mission, company-wide standards, and teamwork must not be allowed to suffer. 

Technology alone can’t solve the cultural problems, but it can provide useful tools. If remote workers feel they are on the other side of an impenetrable barrier, they will never feel part of the organization. However, if technology emerges that lets them tunnel through that barrier when they need to, then organizations can enjoy the twin benefits of hiring the best people regardless of location and cultivating a culture of excellence.

The current state of remote collaboration

Despite big advances in multimedia, most of today’s remote collaboration technologies don’t push the envelope. There are audio and video conferencing, document sharing, and desktop sharing solutions. These technologies are routinely used for business meetings, informational webinars, and online learning. There are a few specific applications, such as remote radiology (many hospitals use remote radiologists during the night shift), that are highly targeted.

Webinars are a good example of how remote collaboration solutions can simultaneously deliver new benefits and create new problems. Organizations can invite people all over the world to attend their webinars. Often, outside experts are recruited to provide added perspective. A good webinar resembles a panel discussion at a conference. However, most attendees recognize that webinars typically have specific marketing goals. Webinar hosts understand that people may sign up and then not show up, or they may stay for only part of the webinar.

Some remote collaboration limitations are unavoidable. There are certain jobs, particularly in management, that require individuals to work at a main location where they can interact directly with colleagues and subordinates.

A fundamental problem for many telecommuters is that they tend to feel left out. In a meeting room, participants can see everyone and be seen by everyone. There are visual cues during meetings, and opportunities to confer with individual colleagues before and after meetings. With most teleconferencing solutions, remote participants only have access to audio or a fixed camera view.

Owl Labs was founded to provide a better video conferencing user experience for remote participants. The company’s flagship product, the Meeting Owl, features a 360° intelligent camera, eight beamforming microphones for omnidirectional audio pickup, and a 360° speaker. The remote participant sees a panoramic view of the entire meeting room at the top of the display, while the bulk of the screen shows meeting room participants who are speaking or gesturing. Company co-founder Mark Schnittman got the idea from his own experience as a remote worker.  As Owl Lab’s website describes it, “It was hard to see what was going on, difficult to hear what people were saying, and a challenge to actively contribute.”

Another area in which we’ve seen meaningful progress is online training. Adobe Connect describes its solution as a “web conferencing software service [that] offers immersive online meeting experiences for collaboration, virtual classrooms and large-scale webinars.” Adobe Connect supports up to 200 virtual classroom participants. Its open architecture allows partners to develop plug-ins such as video players, real-time voting systems, and countdown timers.

What comes next?

So far, the tech industry has put the most effort into fine-tuning familiar remote collaboration tools. At some point, capabilities such as higher speed, lower latency, greater capacity, increased mobility, and perhaps even haptics (sense of touch) will take remote collaboration into new and largely unexplored territory.

Higher speed and lower latency are key to more immersive experiences. For instance, the National Basketball Association has begun to offer weekly broadcasts in virtual reality (VR). Sean Gregory, who writes about sports for Time, finds the NBA’s VR broadcasts captivating – despite being somewhat primitive. Specifically, there is some blurring during the action, but VR gives the viewer a chance to see the game from the best seats in the house. Though VR with six degrees of freedom (allowing the user to not only look in any direction but move around) would require multiple gigabits per second, VR with three degrees of freedom (allowing the user to look in any direction from one fixed location) is possible at significantly lower rates (around 300 megabits per second).

According to a report by Peter Rysavy (to which I contributed), 5G wireless has the potential to disrupt the fixed broadband service market.  A combination of higher spectral efficiency, the deployment of hundreds of thousands of small cells, and expansive new frequency allocations in the millimeter wave region of the radio spectrum will enable wireless networks to leapfrog cable networks in capacity. Cable networks can respond by, among other things, deploying fiber deeper into their networks. The point here is that competition from wireless operators will spur qualitative improvements in broadband performance – improvements that will enable new applications such as augmented reality, virtual reality, and haptic telepresence.

Remote collaboration on steroids

Imagine broadband networks with significantly higher throughput, lower latency, and greater mobility.

VR with three degrees of freedom will allow remote meeting participants to feel less disadvantaged. Assuming appropriately equipped conference rooms, remote participants will be able to select cameras, zoom in and zoom out, and look in different directions. This is theoretically possible today.

VR with six degrees of freedom will enable members of a fully distributed workforce to attend meetings in virtual conference rooms. Participants will be able to see each other (or their avatars), get up to draw on a virtual whiteboard, and confer with individual colleagues before and after meetings. We are years and perhaps decades away from realizing this vision – at least with the quality user experience that most organizations are likely to demand.

Remote collaboration in the field – where “field” means any indoor or outdoor location where work is performed – will be greatly enhanced using drones that hover over the scene with cameras, tools, and even supplies. Drones can enable remote specialists to inspect bridges, monitor hospital emergency room operations, and advise manufacturers about how to improve factory workflow. The limiting factor is how long a drone can hover on one battery charge.

What all of this tells us is that there are many possibilities for future remote collaboration. The faster networks become, the harder it will be to distinguish telecommuting from being there.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

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