Telepresence breaks down communication barriers

Evolving technology enables immersive, real-time virtual meetings, face-to-face, without the high costs of travel

Evolving technology enables immersive, real-time virtual meetings, face-to-face, without the high costs of travel

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As organizations become increasingly distributed and overseas outsourcing become the norm, it's not unusual for execs, engineers, or sales teams to find themselves falling victim regularly to long, stressful, and often unproductive hours in transit on planes, trains, automobiles, and chicken buses (depending on where they are), in order to have face-to-face meetings.

The face-to-face aspect of a meeting is clearly important; it can be downright essential, in fact, for clear and productive collaboration sessions. Human beings pick up and process essential visual cues from their fellow homo sapiens that just can't be readily transmitted via the popular collaboration tools of today, like IM, wikis, and e-mail. Meanwhile, videoconferencing has not, by some critics' accounts, delivered the seamless, full-size, realistic face-to-face experience users have expected.

Fortunately, travel-weary executives and teams alike may just have cause for celebration: Telepresence technology has, by many accounts, achieved a level of quality, reliability, and affordability such that it's truly a realistic alternative to in-person face-to-face meetings.

"Vendors have raised the bar in terms of visual quality and audio quality and the whole environment of virtual meetings to the point that the technology is a viable alternative to actually traveling," says Jayanth Angl, research analyst at Info-Tech Research. "It's that immersive experience that people really need in order to conduct a real face-to-face meeting."

Howard S. Lichtman, president of the Human Productivity Lab (HPL), agrees. "Telepresence meetings make remote participants life-size, with fluid motion, accurate flesh tones, and flawless audio. The experience feels remarkably natural and comfortable for almost any size meeting," he writes in a very thorough research report titled "Telepresence, Effective Visual Collaboration, and the Future of Global Business at the Speed of Light."

The big picture

Telepresence essentially gives users a virtual conference room. Participants might sit at tables or at their own desks (depending on the setup) across from one or more large, high-definition video screens. With a couple of clicks, participants connect with one another, the way you might dial into a conference call. Hidden cameras and microphones then capture video and audio stream of each participant and deliver them, via a high -bandwidth networks, to the screens of the other participants.

The result: Everyone feels as though they're sitting in same room, even if they're really separated by thousands of miles. Plus, participants can connect their laptops and share applications and documents on one of the big screens, just like you might do in the conference room at your office.

So what does this all amount to? Suddenly, CTO Bob in New York can meet with engineers in London and suppliers in Tokyo, on the fly. He can see clearly see on the big screen that Engineer Stan's a little nervous about the project timeline, but he can hear the excitement in Supplier Carol's voice about the cost-saving potential of a new component her team has developed. In one afternoon, they can all work together to hammer out the kinks in the plans, in real time, and make changes to the spec document via a shared application -- and Bob can still make it home for dinner.

The company has saved time. It's saved money, both in man-hours and travel costs. And hey, it has spared the air several tons of carbon dioxide by not having everyone travel out to a single location via a 747, a nice green byproduct to telepresence.

An average flight from Los Angeles to New York generates 1 ton of carbon dioxide per passenger, for example, the Los Angeles Times reports. A single roundtrip transatlantic flight emits roughly half the CO2 emissions produced by all other sources (lighting, heating, car use, etc.) consumed by an average person yearly, according to the U.N. Atlas of Oceans. Meanwhile, the number of international travelers is expected to swell from 594 million in 1996 to 1.6 billion by 2020.

Meet the telepresence players

Plenty of companies, including Cisco, HP, Polycom, Teliris, and Telanetix, offer telepresence systems. Solutions range from high-priced offerings that include a full-blown conference room plus service and a dedicated network, to lower-end options that customers can deploy in existing rooms and offices and run across their own networks.

(I want to note at this point that I haven't tested any of these solutions first-hand, nor are the features I mention for any one of them intended to be a complete list.)

HP's Halo Collaboration Studio falls under the prior category. It's a relatively costly investment: A studio starts at $329,000. Each one is essentially a full-blown conference room measuring 17 feet by 21 feet. A studio can seat up to six primary participants. Participants face four 50-inch, high-definition video screens. Three project the other participants on the call, at life-size. The fourth is used for data collaboration. A high-definition, high-magnification document camera enables individuals to zoom in on objects on the table, "revealing the finest of details, from colors to patterns," according to HP.

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HP's Halo Collaboration Studio falls under the prior category. It's a relatively costly investment: A studio starts at $329,000. Each one is essentially a full-blown conference room measuring 17 feet by 21 feet. A studio can seat up to six primary participants. Participants face four 50-inch, high-definition video screens. Three project the other participants on the call, at life-size. The fourth is used for data collaboration. A high-definition, high-magnification document camera enables individuals to zoom in on objects on the table, "revealing the finest of details, from colors to patterns," according to HP.

Up to four studios can connect at one time, through a few simple mouseclicks. "Meetings are off and rolling literally within a couple of minutes. Less than that a few minutes, most of the time, depending on how long it takes you to click on the mouse," ... says Darren Podrabsky, HP Halo future products marketing manager.

HP delivers a private, dedicated network for Halo, called Halo Video Exchange Network (HVEN). "It's one of the biggest benefits we offer. It enables us to guarantee the same Halo experience anywhere you are in the world: New York, London, Singapore, Melbourne ...," Podrabsky says.

As part of the monthly service fee to cover network and operations costs, which start at $18,000 per month, per studio, customers receive support including remote diagnostics and calibration, ongoing service and repair and a 24-by-7 concierge service.

Taking a different approach to HP is Teliris. The company offers a highly modular telepresence technology, called GlobalTable, which customers can deploy as their needs and space dictate. "We can be deployed at many different levels, not just the senior-executive boardroom level," says Marc Trachtenberg, CEO at Teliris.

On the high end, a customer can have Teliris install a full conference room, including up to six flat-panel screens. Additionally, the company offers single-screen solutions that executives can use from the comfort of their own offices. Screen sizes from 42 inches to 100.

The modularity, as well as the company's relatively lower price-point, has positioned it "to lead the pack in installed customer locations," according to HPL's Lichtman. The company "has over 110+ sites either in place or on order, making Teliris the commercial leader in the space."

Like HP, Teliris delivers the life-size visuals and high quality audio, as well as the ability to connect up to six locations at once (which trumps the multipoint capabilities of the competition). Optional features include multi-site document replication, 2D and 3D cams, digital flip charting and storyboarding.

The company also offers what it calls VirtualLive 360, the first telepresence environment to offer a stand-up presentation, with a lectern.

Like HP, Teliris offers a dedicated network, called InfiNet, but customers instead can choose to run the solution via their own network.

Pricing can for Teliris solutions range from $60,000 to $250,000, according to Trachtenberg, plus monthly fees range from $5,000 to $10,000.

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Other competitors in the space include Telanetix, a company that offers an very aggressive price for its modular Digital Presence telepresence products: Companies can lease a two-screen system starting at $1,000 per month. The company's CEO Tom Szabo describes the system as "CEO-proof," thanks to its ease of use, as well as future-proof. "Because we're software-based, we're also future proof. We just send out software updates over the network. There's no downtime. No one needs to visit the customer."

Getting more done

Plenty of companies have already adopted telepresence, including PepsiCo, AMD, DreamWorks, AOL, GE Commercial Finance, Mercedes Benz, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

AIG-FP, an international financial institution, purchased Halo studios for its offices in Connecticut, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, and plans to add one in Paris.

The company's CIO William Kolbert speaks highly of the system, advocating it over the more traditional collaboration tools in use at a lot of companies. "It's a clear, crisp meeting experience that results in a true working session. You're not just showing a PowerPoint presentation or some other document, you're truly collaborating."

The technology has helped the company streamline productivity in a big way. "If we didn't have Halo, we would have had to extend the whole timetable for rolling out our SAP system," Kolbert says.

Consultants used the company's Halo studio to train key employees, rather than traveling to major offices for small group meetings.

Another company employing telepresence, in this case, from Teliris, is Pearson, a global 1000 media company. According to Lichtman, the company reaped $2.1 million in hard-dollar travel savings by implementing telepresence in its New York and London offices. But also significant, the company reports a significant boost in productivity through better collaboration and communication. Justine Kanter, a management development and HR executive at Pearson had this to say in a written statement, reported by Lichtman.

"It is not just about saving money on international travel. It is also about getting smarter at communication strategy collaboration. ... Obstacles to collaboration soon fall away when you have tools such as GlobalTable in place," writes Kanter. "We are now discussing strategic initiatives with people in the business that previously were just e-mail colleagues because it is so simple. We are witnessing a massive culture change where people are talking more openly to each other about their markets and products, and not feeling in any way threatened by sharing knowledge. Talking face to face with someone is very different from sending memos and submitting reports."

We can't we all get along?

One of the obstacles telepresence vendors still need to overcome to boost their wares' usability is interoperability, according to Info-Tech's Angl. Right now, a company with a telepresence solution from one vendor won't be able to have a session with partner if they're running another vendor's product. "That's something we’d like to see in the near future... It's just really about extending the usefulness of the system. You'd have to be able to play with others," says Angl.

Some companies, like Teliris and Telanetix are ahead of the game. Teliris unveiled its Telepresence Gateway, which according to Gartner's Research Director Rich Costello will "initially support interoperability with Polycom RPX and Tandberg Experia telepresence solutions, with interoperability support for Cisco TelePresence and HP Halo down the road."

Szabo notes that Telanetix's product works with Polycom and Tanberg.

Other vendors, like HP, have catching up to do there. "We are about ready to roll out interoperability with between Halo and traditional videoconferencing tools," says HP's Podrabsky. As for the interopability down the road, "we're actively exploring it. We would like to be able to offer interoperability with other telepresence solutions. It takes agreement to participating with some of those folks like Teleris, Polycom, and Cisco."

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