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Telepresence Promises Productive Meetings

Telepresence Promises Productive Meetings

Telepresence promises global meetings a step up from videoconferencing that are as productive as face-to-face encounters

Quality Controlled

The second reason to invest is the fact that the experience of telepresence is a vast improvement on desktop or even room-based videoconferencing thanks to razor-sharp images, high-fidelity audio and precise synchronization. This means that subtle but important gestures -- smiles, nods, winks and shrugs, for example -- can be interpreted in just the same way as in a physical meeting. Documents on desks are legible and it's very obvious when speakers are flustered, unhappy or nervous.

"You can change the way people interact," says Teliris's Trachtenberg. "The fundamental difference is that telepresence is an emotional experience. It's a totally different experience from videoconferencing, which has not replaced the need for travel and the need for interaction. Telepresence is an environment that allows people to feel they're in the same room. It's not the difference between brown bread and white bread -- it's a fundamental category shift. The key difference [to other forms of conferencing] is there's nothing to touch, there's no technical interaction. If you go to a conference room for a face-to-face meeting you don't comb your hair, you don't fiddle with kit, and you shouldn't with telepresence either."either.""

Polycom's McGroarty agrees that telepresence brings virtual meetings one step nearer to being in the same room. "The reason most people travel to an office is to enable ad hoc decision making. That type of behavior needs to be carried forward into the world of virtual meetings," he says.

And then there are the softer factors. Being seen to spend heavily on air travel is increasingly being frowned up on by ethical buyers and investors. Any reduction in plane travel will be appreciated by CSR committees but that reduction will also improve the work/life balance of erstwhile frequent fliers.

"Modern enterprises have diversified and opened offices close to their customers," says McGroarty. "You can jump on a plane and manage that way but it's a lot more time consuming than ever and there's a lot of work being done to cut carbon footprints. People say 'we have to be seen to be doing something around carbon footprint because our most senior person stood on a stage six months ago and said we would'."

Finally, telepresence is emerging as an attractive candidate for contingency planning. If there is a major problem that prevents business travel, telepresence provides a way for the show, and the meeting, to go on.

However, although telepresence is a compelling technology, it is only scratching the surface of its potential. And even without the issue of price, there are some concerns. Interoperability remains a thorny subject, for example, with vendors throwing brickbats around, alleging proprietary behavior that degrades the telepresence experience when users want to mix and match kit from various suppliers.

But generally there is plenty of optimism for a market that is growing quickly and changing fast. Teliris's Trachtenberg says that telepresence is part of "a multi-stage approach to immersion. There are many building blocks. We have added to telepresence a new platform called immersive collaboration that allows you to share content with people around the world as if you had a piece of paper sitting between you."

Tools of the Trade

Trachtenberg is also excited by table-top systems that help to further engage telepresence users by providing virtual flip charts, whiteboards and other tools on a flat surface, and will ship its first patented product in the category in September.

"If you look at the Microsoft Surface PC product it's great for entertainment but our system allows a PDF or live video to be pushed across the table as if users were pushing this content across the world," he enthuses.

Polycom's McGroarty sees increased quality coming. "As HDTV continues to drive the consumer experience higher, we'll at least have to follow that and improve the naturalness of telepresence," he says. Sound will also improve thanks to 'zonal audio' so that sound is directed to reflect the screen location of the person speaking on the telepresence system.

Many in the industry also predict a fundamental change, with telepresence moving to service centers rather than having to be located within company offices. Hotels, airports, train stations and conference centers could be equipped with telepresence suites so users can set up sessions without having to be at an office or make capital expenditure on equipment.

Some whisper that well known airlines could even run these centers as an adjunct to their core business of transporting people. In this way, more of us will be exposed to telepresence and virtual meetings could become as much a fabric of the way we communicate as mobile phones, email and instant messaging are today.

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