|Telepresence: costly but very cool (April 2008)|
A new generation of video conferencing is bringing the “real” to virtual meetings—at last.
By Lauren Bielski, senior editor
When remote communication with image was purely about video conferencing, executives had to contend with herky jerky images, color issues, sound delays, and other annoying irregularities.
If you don’t mind a hefty investment and a dedicated conference line for bandwidth, you can benefit from a new generation of video conferencing known as telepresence—available over the last year and starting to get wider use.
“It’s not cheap, averaging $300,000 for a conference-ready room for the highest-end systems,” says Claire Schooley, senior industry analyst, Forrester, who is based in their Foster City, Calif., office.
“But if we are talking about conducting high stakes meetings where reading the subtleties of body language is a requirement, then these systems are ideal,” says Schooley.
Calling telepresence wares from Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Teliris, and Polycom “the Cadillac[s] of Videoconferencing” in a research note she co-authored last year, Schooley says that the expensive approach to virtual meets can make sense for a certain market: namely multinational corporations, corporations with many third-party service providers, particularly those in remote geographic locations, and, those who want to meet more with a certain type of highly valued customer or partner.
More recently, Schooley adds, tier-two telepresence units that don’t include the build out of a conference-ready room—one with ideal lighting and color palettes—but merely install high definition, immersive, full-aspect-ratio systems into an existing conference room, have been introduced at a slightly lower price point.
And the name? “The name describes the lifelike images and sound quality that these units deliver,” Schooley says.
Moreover, it’s what the technology isn’t—an intrusion on a person-to-person meeting experience—that’s key to these system’s appeal, says Howard Lichtman, president of the Human Productivity Lab, a consultancy specializing in visual collaboration, video conferencing, and telepresence systems.
“Previous systems didn’t support a true experience of meeting a person,” says Lichtman. “This shows off fluid image presentation, natural flesh tones and colors, and has sound coming from the direction of the person doing the talking.”
The brain, he explains, can be fooled into ignoring distance if certain visual cues look correct enough. But if anything is too off and they are, in Lichtman’s words, “talking to a doll-sized image and talking into a camera on a dessert cart,” a less-than-productive meeting can, and often does, result.
“Not to mention that these [older] systems have been difficult to set up and get a conference in session,” Lichtman adds. For these and other performance reasons, he notes, standard video conferencing never became the workhorse that it should have, nor did executives seeking a return on investment argument on behalf of video conferencing and collaborative technologies present it in terms of travel replacement.
But get the human factors right, says Lichtman, and you have a real shot at video conferencing finally going the distance. “These systems can help cement relationships without the wear and tear of travel,” he says.
Manuel Basurto agrees. The telepresence and video conferencing product manager at Wachovia describes his bank as a “Cisco shop,” that opted to complete its IP telephony package with the vendor’s TelePresence unit.
“We went into pilot with three locations last January,” he says. Using TelePresence for a wide range of internal meetings from HR conducting candidate interviews to executives engaged in IT project planning, the units have been heavily used since June, when the official rollout was completed. “The pilot focused on post-merger work with AG Edwards,” Basurto says.“We cut back on travel related to getting them onboarded.”
Later, in full production at Charlotte, Richmond, St. Louis, and San Antonio, regular usage in the studios has resulted in travel avoidance and improved productivity. Cisco’s next generation unit will be rolled out in Charlotte for a total of five in production.
“In a customer satisfaction survey I conducted over six weeks 34% of the 700 people who used the units cut out travel for a savings of $250,000 over that six-week period compared to $125,000 of the operational cost of the studio,” he says. Users were highly satisfied with the experience, he relates, noting that life-sized images, high sound quality and “generally, good aesthetics” made the technology transparent after about 20 minutes of their first telepresence session.
“You want sessions to be easy to start and finish and you want the technology to ‘disappear’,” says Basurto.
Indeed, less clumsy interfaces, sound- and image-friendly dedicated conference rooms, and the norm of distributed workforces, may mean that times are changing for the video conference.
Erica Schroeder, Cisco’s director of marketing for TelePresence, says that her firm hit the 100-customer milestone a few months ago and continues to see interest in these units.
“Several of our customers are banks,” she explains, adding that manufacturing, high tech, and retail orders are also filtering in.
While meeting replacement is always a common usage, “for everything from product/service development to gathering staff from several regions for routine updates,” at least one bank has created a “Virtual Assistant,” using the technology to bring mortgage or investment experts from centralized locations for a client virtual meeting in the branch.
As with Wachovia, another bank, Schroeder relates, has made use of video conferencing to speed post merger staff integration.
“Basically, they could use the conferencing equipment to have more frequent updates on post-merger operational business,” she explains.
Claire Schooley’s research notes that the combination of high-end conferencing with existing collaboration technologies are helping to give the units traction in financial services. Schooley wrote that Cisco took the TelePresence 3000, which uses three 65-inch plasma display windows, and integrated it with Microsoft Outlook and IBM Lotus Notes to add collaborative tools. Using Cisco TelePresence Manager, a customer can schedule a virtual connection through groupware tools such as Outlook or Notes and then push the meeting information into the video conferencing room, starting the video conference by touching one phone key.
The collaboration solution, she wrote, is a component within Cisco’s Service Oriented Network Architecture (SONA) and is delivered over a converged network or a Cisco-certified TelePresence Network connection using 1080 progressive video, a high quality display resolution that is one of the high definition standard resolutions. Most telepresence units by other manufacturers, Schooley adds, have some sort of capability around document display.
HP’s Halo Collaboration Studio uses proprietary technology and runs only on HP’s Halo Video Exchange Network, which HP operates as a dedicated high-definition connection that provides excellent image quality and no perceived latency in a specially designed videoconferencing room, according to the Forrester report.
Polycom’s RealPresence Solution, which supports interoperability with other standards-based videoconferencing systems, says Schooley, is designed with a modular room (think trade show style expanded kiosks or meeting rooms) and lacks the immersive quality of true telepresence but offers users flexibility, she says.
Teliris VirtualLive, which has zeroed in on the high-end videoconferencing experience, offers a multipoint, multiscreen telepresence experience with 1080 progressive displays, Schooley wrote. The proprietary camera and multipoint vectoring technologies optimize the picture quality and maintain eye contact and site lines in multiple meeting rooms. BJ
Cisco TelePresence product line
Hewlett-Packard Halo product line
Polycom RealPresence product line
Teliris VisualLive product line
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