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Warmth, Realism and Ease of Use Drive Telepresence Uptake

November 27, 2010 | Howard Lichtman
Warmth, Realism and Ease of Use Drive Telepresence Uptake
Enterprise Communications Europe, Telepresence Options Publisher Howard Lichtman took part in a roundtable discussion on the future of telepresence with executives from Cisco, LifeSize, MUSION, Polycom, and Teliris.  The roundtable used a number of Polycom RPX telepresence systems to connect the participants in London, Austin, Herndon, and New York City.   George Malim, the event moderator, reports on the discussion in this article.


The Panel:

  • Dave Thomson, European Marketing Manager, Unified Communications & Collaboration, Cisco Systems
  • Howard Lichtman, President - Human Productivity Lab, and Publisher of Telepresence Options
  • Simon Dudley, Global Sales and Strategy, LifeSize
  • John Antanaitis, Vice President, Product Marketing, Polycom
  • David Stirling, Telepresence Business Development Director EMEA, Polycom
  • Ian O'Connell, Founding Director, Musion Systems
  • Marc Trachtenberg, CEO, Teliris
Practicing what it preaches, Enterprise Communications Europe used telepresence to bring the panel together with the event hosted in Polycom's City of London facility and participants joining from Washington DC, New York and Austin, Texas. The participants were keen to emphasize how telepresence provides a far warmer, realistic and easy to use environment than traditional conferencing such as audio and video.

Howard Lichtman, President - Human Productivity Lab and Publisher of Telepresence Options, agreed: "Human beings have innate expectations with respect to interpersonal communication. When I'm talking to you, I expect you to be life size, I expect your motion to be fluid, I expect your flesh tones to be accurate, I expect when you talk that the sound is going to come from you," he said. "And I think that's what traditional video conferencing didn't deliver, it delivered very small participants on what I'd like to call the plastic camera on the TV set on the dessert cart. It didn't meet those innate expectations with respect to interpersonal communication and what the early adopters of telepresence have found is, when you do meet those expectations, when you do have life size participants, when you have fluid emotion, accurate flesh tones and everything else that we're experiencing now in this setting, people will use it."

For Dave Thomson, European Marketing Manager, Unified Communications & Collaboration, Cisco Systems, the ease of use is as important as the quality of the experience. "I think telepresence has got to the point now where you know you can roll the stuff out with zero training," he said. "End-users can just walk in, they can set up the room very easily in their calendar and they can just press a button, it starts the meeting and they're not thinking about the technology. They're thinking about the business decision, what's the thing we have come here to discuss and the technology doesn't get in the way of that happening because of the ease of use. I think that's why we're seeing telepresence starting to roll out across organisations now."

However, that doesn't mean the technology is ready to feed down to the consumer market just yet. "I think the industry is potentially going to be more driven by the consumer," said David Stirling, telepresence Business Development Director EMEA, Polycom. "If you look at what video has done in the past to the music industry, what video has done to the internet, video will now become an integral part of our home life. I don't believe it's going to be that far down the road that when I want to speak to my grandmother or my auntie or even my son, rather than doing it on a shaky Skype type product that you may use now, I will sit in the comfort of my house maybe with a forty-two inch screen or something like that and just have that conversation. So absolutely I believe that is exactly where it's going to go. Whether that's driven by vendors or whether that's driven from the consumer electronics, white goods or black goods manufacturing is yet to be seen."

In some respects parallels between the roll-out of telepresence to that of videoconferencing can de drawn, as Ian O'Connell, Founding Director, Musion Systems, explained: "I joined the IT publishing World in 1983, I was just a minnow out of college and of course the PC was a new technology. Nevertheless, I used to go out into the field and the PC would be in the President's Office or it would be in the Head of Accounts' Office and its functionality was limited. It required a technical person to do anything more than word processing or spread sheets on it and in the space of fifteen years, it became a ubiquitous must-have tool for every member of the public. I think that telepresence will go the same way."
O'Connell also sees telepresence developing within the consumer market. "In the entertainment market people want to do more interesting things and we've only got to look at YouTube to understand that by creating a TV broadcast yourself channel people will start doing things to broadcast themselves that not even the TV networks previously had ever thought of," he added. "That's the nature of human creativity and I think what you'll find with telepresence is that people will start creating one-to-one experiences that go beyond what we are enjoying here today, which is essentially a business discussion."

John Antanaitis, Vice President, Product Marketing, Polycom, agreed but felt that it was important to understand what represents a suitable case for telepresence usage today. "There are going to be appropriate environments," he said. "Desktop and mobile are coming but clearly you won't get a life size image on a mobile product but the user experience must be a pretty familiar and consistent paradigm across [the platforms]. It might be different at home, truth be told but from a business perspective, if I work for organisation A, the behaviour that I have in my personal telepresence, my team telepresence, shouldn't need to be altered drastically, it should be comfortable and a natural extension from one room to the next."

Simon Dudley, Global Sales and Strategy, LifeSize, commented that while the panel was in broad agreement regarding quality of experience, telepresence is becoming a multi-platform experience, not just one geared to high specification telepresence suites. "It needs to be like looking through a window to another place," he said. "You need to have it everywhere because if you don't, then, frankly there's no one to ring. If you can't, if they haven't got the same thing you can't ring them and the whole industry is horribly hobbled by this idea that all the major manufacturers seem to have non-interoperable solutions."

Interoperability remains a key sticking point for the industry's development but all the participants are aware of the issue and working to address it, as Stirling pointed out: "I think it could hold the industry back especially in that business-to-business application which is actually where this industry will explode," he said. "Obviously there are industry standards right now. All of the manufacturers that have been in the videoconferencing - and I'll use that word deliberately - space, all complied to the industry standards, so if you look at the two to three million video endpoints that are in the marketplace right now, regardless of vendor, they've all complied with an industry-standard. What the industry needs to do now, is to just maybe grow up a little bit and say that the business-to-business piece is critical."

The participants were then asked how they saw telepresence developing over the coming 24 months. "I would love to see it continue to deliver the ability to communicate face-to-face without having to travel and I'd like to see it do that at a price point that allowed it to be deployed across every corporation," said Stirling.

O'Connell anticipated the rise of mobile telepresence. "I'd like to see the threshold of 20%, over 20%, of telepresence experiences being delivered through 4G because I think that would wake up the networking companies," he said.

For Dudley there were two key points. "The answer is twofold," he said. "Ubiquity is our goal, telepresence has got to be everywhere and there also needs to be a seachange in the way that most people do business. Most people walk past their telepresence or videoconferencing room, to get on a plane because they haven't re-engineered the way they go to work. What we need to do is change the way people think about communicating and doing business and this will stop them getting on airplanes."

Antanaitis thought that the next two years would see new endpoints and much of the interoperability issues resolved. "My honest opinion is that in two years you'll have tablets that have this quality of experience," he said. "I really do believe that, based on what I know, is in the works for a number of organisations across the globe. My expectations in two years are that there will be interoperability across manufacturers, not all manufacturers and I expect that will always be the case. In addition, we haven't even talked about how these solutions get mapped into the business applications that everyone uses on a day-to-day basis and I expect that's going to happen in the next two years. It is already starting to happen and it's going to get even more ingrained in users' habits."

For Lichtman, the functionality offered by telepresence is the key and, as quality increases and cost decreases, he expects the market to accelerate: "One of the interesting dynamics about what's going on in the industry is that the cost of every major component of telepresence environments and telepresence systems is going down. So, when we take a look at the cost of codecs and take a look at the cost of cameras and the cost of bandwidth and you look at the cost we are moving to, with much higher unit runs, we're getting the cost of the environment down," he said. "At the exact same time, the quality is going up. So now we're moving to high definition, moving to better quality of service on IP networks, we're moving to larger screen sizes and higher resolutions on codecs. So what I see is quality going through the roof and I see more ubiquity. I see this coming together because of this virtuous cycle of every component getting better at the same time that the cost point is being driven down."

Thomson felt those are key dynamics and also pointed out that the industry could be stimulated by currently unknown drivers. "I think it will be interesting. In two year's time, who knows, the third Icelandic volcano may have blown up, so actually it may force people to change their behaviour," he said. "I was slightly saddened this morning to read that air travel at Heathrow airport last month was at its highest level ever with business travellers and I think something has to change in the way corporations behave. At the moment telepresence systems are like phone boxes, fifty years ago we had to go to a local phone box to make a call. Once we get it at our home desk, once we get it everywhere, we'll start to reduce our travel because we just have to work differently and telepresence has a big part of play in that."

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