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9/27/2006
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Understanding Telepresence

Telepresence can be defined as the ability to share audio, data, and video with a distant site or sites as though the person were truly in the same room, across the conference table from you.  In other words, it delivers a meeting experience that is as good as being present with everyone else.

What makes telepresence different from traditional videoconferencing relates to the handling of the audio, video, document sharing, control systems, room environment, and transport.  Some would argue that HD (high definition) is the same as telepresence, and many vendors are blurring the lines between the two concepts.  In fact, some HD systems do not address all the aspects that telepresence systems address.  Telepresence systems more often addresses issues related to multiple cameras and sophisticated control systems than HD systems.  On the other hand, HD systems provide a 16 x 9 image -- which telepresence systems do not always support.  It's time for vendors to help clarify the differences in their systems, and today I'll go over three areas you ought to consider: audio, video and control systems.

Audio Quality. To go beyond audio associated with traditional videoconferencing, the system needs to support times when all the meeting participants are talking at the same time, without introducing any audio clipping or echo.  It also needs the ability to reproduce low and high volume levels, and not reproduce others (e.g., a whisper).  It needs the ability to reproduce the direction a voice is coming from in a room, in order to help remote meeting participant identify which user is speaking.  Pay special attention to how the audio is handled by each HD and telepresence system.

20060927earon1.jpgVideo Quality. With conventional videoconferencing, participants typically convene in rooms configured to include elongated or u-shaped tables.  The on-screen result is that some people appear close while others are barely visible, and the camera must be continuously adjusted to capture images as people speak.  When this happens, the technology becomes intrusive and distracts users. 

Even in traditional videoconferences where participants are seated around a boat- or banana-shaped table (so they are equidistant from the screen), I find that the video and audio don't match that of a telepresence system.  Images and audio are not as crisp and clear, and the technology has not been designed to be completely user friendly.  Other factors that play a role in having excellent video quality include latency and vectoring.  

Latency. Latency is a fancy word for the waiting time in communications.  Real-time interactive applications like videoconferencing are sensitive to accumulated delay, which is referred to as latency.  Latency is the lag time between the origin of the sound and when everyone else hears it.  The human brain wants to feel that interaction is real.  Achieving imperceptible latency is a critical requirement of a true telepresence solution.  When examining latency, take into consideration both the codec and the network.

Vectoring. Vectoring allows a meeting to be enhanced by creating a more realistic orientation and interface among users.  This includes the ability to consistently maintain eye contact, allowing the maximum number of individuals to appear on each screen, never sending the same image to more than one site, and proper camera placement to ensure that sight lines for all users are maintained.  The fundamental issue is how to scale from a point-to-point call to a multi-site call.  For effective meetings there should be no difference. 

To accomplish the feeling of “being there” requires multiple cameras and encoders to capture different perspectives of the table.  Another major concept in the vectoring category is the ability of the system to adapt; to maximize itself for the particular call.  During the call set up, the camera zooms in to capture the correct number of people in each room and when more than one camera is involved, adjustments are made for different positions at the table.  It is important for users to test calls on various systems and look at both the delay and set up of the images when making a decision about purchasing either an HD or telepresence systems.  

Control Systems. Control systems for videoconferencing products have traditionally been action-specific (user-directed instructions “pushed” to individual parts of the system) and not function-oriented (an integrated solution querying users regarding their needs in a “pull” scenario).  All users want to do is have a flawless meeting and not have to deal with the technology by pushing buttons or accessing menu screens.  With telepresence technologies and several HD systems, users are better able to meet without having to control anything.  While minimal control is also possible with traditional videoconferencing systems, it is not the norm:  usually someone needs to take control of the meeting technology, or the meeting tools available to the participants are not frequently used.  With some telepresence systems, the vendor controls all aspects of the meeting. But if the vendor goes out of business, the customer may have no control over the system.  In other telepresence systems, the customer can choose between vendor and customer control.

Room Environment. There are many other aspects to consider when deploying a telepresence or HD system, but the one that remains critical to success and yet is often overlooked is the room environment.

Unfortunately, many organizations do not put enough emphasis on the room environment in which the videoconferencing technology is placed.  This often results in distant sites being unable to clearly see or hear the other end.  Many times the lighting isn't optimized for video (resulting in facial shadows) or the room isn't properly treated for sound absorption (resulting in poor audio).  Organizations that pay close attention to the room environment, whether in a traditional videoconference, an HD environment or a telepresence meeting, have a better meeting experience.  Environmental issues that need to be addressed include:  room dimensions, furniture and equipment placement, table shape, room acoustic treatments, fabric selection, colors, lighting design/placement, number of participants per room, and intent of usage (multi-purpose or dedicated).

Is It Time To Consider Buying Telepresence or HD?

As you assess the pros and cons of adopting telepresence or HD systems, you need to ask yourself whether now is the right time to deploy these technologies, or if waiting is advantageous.  The answer is the same as it was twenty years ago when companies were considering traditional videoconferencing:  if you need a system and you have the means to deploy telepresence or HD, don't wait. While telepresence and HD are new and more expensive than traditional videoconferencing, the prices are dropping and the improvements are accelerating. 

Ask vendors what they offer, and judge which system meets your specific business needs. Firms that have used telepresence or HD systems have found them both to be of  greater value than traditional videoconferencing and find it easy to justify the cost for both domestic and international meetings -- especially when the meeting participants need to see what is happening at one or more distant sites. 

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