10:33 AM

Will Telepresence Finally Be Practical For SMBs?

Sometimes, there is just no substitute for a face-to-face business meeting, even if it means traveling across the country. Or is there?

Sometimes, there is just no substitute for a face-to-face business meeting, even if it means traveling across the country. Or is there?For years now -- decades, really -- we have heard promises that videoconferencing technology will transform the way we do business. Those promises remain unfulfilled, mostly because the theory behind videoconferencing solutions tends to cause real-world train wrecks.

Consider the impact of something we take for granted during in-person meetings: eye contact. Have you ever spoken over the phone to someone who was in eyesight (in the same room, across the hall, sitting next to you on a park bench)?

Do you find it feels unnatural to actually look at each other?

Its not natural for us to make eye contact when were on the phone, so even when we can make eye contact, we cannot.

With a videophone, however, were expected to make eye contact. Thats what its for, right?

Unfortunately, the focal point of the screen is not the focal point of the camera, and it is therefore impossible to both look at the person you are talking to, and see them as well. You either look at the screen, or the camera. This makes for a very unnatural conversation, because if you are looking at my face on your screen, your camera will capture you looking down, not at me. If you look at your camera, then I will see you looking at me, but you will not be able to see my face, because your eyes will not be on your screen. For these and other reasons, many companies that experiment with videoconferencing end up returning either to some combination of phone calls and online collaboration tools or to an old-fashioned business trip.

Another group of technologies, referred to collectively as telepresence, is designed to fix all the things that a standard videoconferencing session tends to break. The idea is to provide tools that give remote conferees the visual and environmental cues they require to participate in a natural, comfortable conversation.

Companies like Cisco have offered telepresence solutions for years now. As my colleague Paul Korzeniowski recently pointed out, the company continues to invest billions of dollars in this technology.

That might seem like a big gamble. As a rule, these solutions, including advanced video systems, network infrastructure, and two-way bandwidth, were limited to very large companies that can justify spending a fortune on technologies that they are unlikely ever to use outside their organizational boundaries.

This technology can obviously produce a return on a company's investment. The problem is reducing the size of that investment to the point where SMBs can even consider giving it a try.

You don't have to be a technical whiz, however, to recognize that many of these limitations are fading away. High-definition displays and video cameras are now mass-market consumer items. Bandwidth is still an issue for some business users, but many others now have access to the cheap, fat two-way pipes required to stream high-def video feeds.

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Now we have news -- from the Consumer Electronics Show, no less -- that Cisco is partnering with Verizion to set up a trial home telepresence service in the United States. The service (which presumably will take advantage of Verizon's fiber-to-the-curb FIOS offering) will use a consumer's "existing HDTV and broadband connection to support a high-quality home telepresence experience."

Frankly, I'm surprised that Cisco is positioning this trial as a consumer service, rather than targeting SMBs. Telepresence is the last piece of a puzzle that also includes online conferencing, collaboration, and screen-sharing tools, all of which are far more valuable when companies can combine them into a coherent remote-presence infrastructure.

Will 2010 be the year that these promises become a reality? I think that's too optimistic, but it does seem like we're finally on the right track.

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