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Howard Lichtman, President and Founder, The Human Productivity Lab - Talks Telepresence

December 6, 2010 | Howard Lichtman

Howard Lichtman, President and Founder,
The Human Productivity Lab - Talks Telepresence

Enterprise Communications Europe,

At Enterprise Communications Europe's telepresence roundtable, George Malim, spoke to Howard S. Lichtman of the Human Productivity Lab about how the technology has developed and now has the capability to transform both how enterprises work and how consumer users live.

ECE: Now use of telepresence is becoming more widespread, what needs to be done within enterprises to ensure productivity gains are maximised?

Howard_headshot.jpgHoward S. Lichtman: I have three suggestions for enterprises wanting to maximise productivity gains.

First - Create an inter-company telepresence strategy that connects you with partners, vendors, and customers. Creating an inter-company strategy is somewhat complex and involves cooperation with supply and demand chain partners and a focus on interoperability of systems and internetworking to ensure the ability to connect to the greatest number of stakeholders on disparate networks securely at high speeds and quality.  It also involves a review of current business practices and fostering an understanding of the importance of visual collaboration within the organisation.  You don't want to force mandates as much as create an environment that simplifies, promotes, and encourages the widespread use of high quality visual collaboration. 

The second suggestion concerns widespread deployment. Organisations should make it possible for the greatest number of users to access the systems as possible at each major location. This shouldn't just be a tool for the executives but should be pushed down as much as possible to the front lines.

My third suggestion is to focus on improving the productivity of subject matter experts. These can be executives, product managers or tier one support folks and leverage that expertise globally while improving the SME's individual productivity. 

ECE: Can lower quality telepresence provide similar benefits to that provided in large suites or is there no comparison?

HSL: First, let's define telepresence.  Our definition is: visual collaboration solutions that address the human factors of participants and attempt to replicate, as closely as possible, an in-person meeting experience. 

The more a telepresence solution is able to meet end-users' innate expectations for inter-personal communications the more that it will be used.  For large global organisations attempting to manage international operations using physical travel, the better the telepresence experience the more employees will adopt the technology willingly.  Better end-user acceptance translates into more usage, which equals hard, soft and opportunity cost savings from physical travel, improved productivity and time-to-market advantage.

The quality of a telepresence experience is based on the combination of dozens of factors including: screen resolution and size, frame rate, display quality, camera capture, lighting, spatial acoustics, network quality and ease-of-use. The better a solution addresses these factors, the more natural and realistic the experience and it is unfortunately somewhat expensive to create an optimum environment.

Small to medium enterprises can still reap many of the benefits of visual collaboration by deploying traditional high definition videoconferencing and focusing on addressing the human factors of participants when laying out their room and system. Focus on lighting, acoustics, aspect ratio in camera and display placement, and collaborative tools. 

ECE: How do you see telepresence developing to encompass collaborative working tools and other applications?

HSL: We think one of the next big evolutions of telepresence will be improvements to the way that data is shared within environments.  Right now collaboration is primarily "screen-scraping" data off a laptop and replicating that view at the remote location.  Much collaborative work, however, involves collaborating on physical objects, whiteboarding interactively, or even working with and/or editing video content.  We are already seeing end-user innovators "pro-modifying" telepresence environments to improve their collaborative capabilities and have seen a couple of the vendors develop innovative solutions such as interactive table computing, seamless webconferencing integration and virtual flip charting.  We call this "effective visual collaboration" and believe it to be the next major evolution that will improve the experience in telepresence environments.  Our philosophy for success is to provide "The usual and customary tools in their usual and customary format". You need to replicate, as closely as possible, the customary experience. 

ECE: How great a barrier to wider uptake is the issue of interoperability between the different vendors' equipment?

HSL: Interoperability is a big issue because it doesn't just mean that one system can connect to another system.  Much of the magic is maintaining eye-lines and spatial acoustics between disparate systems in multi-point calls, "framing" a call correctly so the right layout of the remote participants on the screen(s) is maintained and/or being able to collaborate on data are critical.  This is where setting up an effective inter-company telepresence program gets tricky and why you need to examine this issue from the outset to future-proof investments.

ECE: Who do you see as becoming the provider of telepresence?

HSL: It's a tough race to call.  Cisco has been able to achieve a dominant market position through massive investment and the acquisition of TANDBERG but the lessons of history in technology are that dominant market positions are sometimes fleeting.  The cost of the components for high-quality telepresence environments are dropping rapidly and we haven't even seen widespread adoption yet so it is very possible that another company or private equity firm with deep pockets could enter the fray, buy one of the smaller players and pump up competition. 

ECE: What role will telecoms carriers play?

HSL: The telecom carriers are big supporters because telepresence loads networks and the customers are typically large Fortune 5000 customers that get locked into multi-year contracts and don't have problems paying the bills. Wall Street loves recurring revenue and the spend on network and managed services is greater than the cost of the equipment.  Telepresence and videoconferencing network provider Masergy, for example, is going to the street with a US$100m IPO largely on the strength of their success in selling quality of service video networks. 

ECE: Telepresence is known to have great green credentials because of the travel that it makes unnecessary but the technology uses considerable power and cooling. What can be done to improve the environmental performance of the technology?

HSL: LED and OLED displays and projectors are in the pipeline and the major vendors continue to make incremental improvements in power consumption. 

ECE: How can organisations construct an ROI case for telepresence and balance the costs against the efficiencies generated?

HSL: Organisations need to understand the hard, soft, and opportunity costs of physical travel.  It isn't just the cost of the airplane ticket /hotel/rental car and per diem. There is the soft cost and the opportunity cost of physical travel, which includes the employee's time in transit, and the value of what they would be doing if they weren't traveling.  In addition, organisations need to consider how this capability could revolutionise the way they do R&D by plugging themselves together with their partners or revolutionise customer service by making their organisation "right down the hall" from key customers. In addition, telepresence offers a superb disaster recovery and business continuity capability for times when physical travel becomes impossible or, should economic conditions deteriorate to the extent that physical travel becomes cost prohibitive or massively inconvenient such as in the case of war, terrorism, false flag terrorism, public health emergencies, currency crisis and/or volcanic eruptions.  Finally, it is important to understand that the ROI of telepresence is growing as networks connect at telepresence and videoconferencing exchanges and inter-company telepresence takes off.  The more organisations and content you can reach means a greater ROI that continues to improve in a very virtuous cycle. 

ECE: When is telepresence not suitable? It isn't the answer for every enterprise communications situation is it?

HSL: We don't think that telepresence is suitable for all communications.  Face-to-face meetings are important for initial meetings especially customer meetings when establishing or building trust is important.  It is also important for complex negotiations where trust and body language are important, such as final interviews when hiring, for example.  Where telepresence shines is for on-going work between teams that know each other and for initial job interviews, screening interviews, employee reviews,  training sessions, etc. There are an amazing amount of routine business interactions that can be replaced or improved through telepresence.

ECE: How do you see telepresence developing? Will it become ubiquitous?

HSL: One of the most interesting dynamics in telepresence is that all the major inputs to realistic telepresence environments are dramatically improving in areas such as: higher resolutions and frame rates, larger screen sizes, brighter LED & DLP projectors and better quality of service on networks.

At the same time the cost of these components is falling.  We see high-end telepresence environments becoming more and more realistic while, at the same time, we see wider adoption and greater utility. By utility we mean that who you can talk to and what content can be reached will grow dramatically.  Telepresence and video exchanges which connect disparate networks at high speeds and quality will continue to grow, improving the ability to reach more and more organisations. At the same time the best effort internet continues to improve to handle video while next generation video protocols like SVC improves video quality over bumpy networks. 

On the lower end, we see video becoming ubiquitous in the home through low-cost, high quality appliances, set-top box integration, and more sophisticated and higher quality video phones.  We see mobile devices with more sophisticated video capabilities that have better integration into unified communications solutions at high quality.  The industry is slowly and surely moving towards ubiquitous any-to-any video device connectivity and opening opportunities for those companies who are positioned to benefit from it.

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For the full length discussion you can watch the accompanying video, or read the roundtable discussion article which can be found within the ECE digital post event magazine at: Click Here

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