Telepresence: Just Like Being There

Craig Kaufman studied videoconferencing vendors for years without ever being tempted to buy one of their products for his own firm, Kaufman Bros., a research-based investment bank and brokerage that specializes in the communications, media and technology industries.

CEO Kaufman, who holds undergraduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, in addition to an MBA, describes himself as “a banker by practice, while being a technologist and mathematician at heart.” But videoconferencing technology held little appeal for him until last year, when he installed a Digital Presence solution from Telanetix. And now he won’t shut up about it. “I recommend it to everybody who comes through my doors–it’s a game changer.”

Though he had tested videoconferencing systems over the years, Kaufman always had the impression that a lot of them weren’t very functional. “This is the first time I saw something that was truly immersive, where we could interact on a quasi-real basis.” It also was as easy to use as making a phone call, ending videoconferencing’s reputation for being a technology only a technician could love.

The new generation of videoconferencing is often known by a different name, telepresence, to emphasize how different their “just like being there” experience is from earlier, clunkier videoconferencing. It’s just the kind of technology that’s likely to capture the imagination of CEOs, CFOs and board members.

That can be a mixed blessing for CIOs, who may find themselves caught between boardroom enthusiasm for the technology and the practical details of implementing it. On one hand, technology leaders may be told to install these videoconferencing systems “yesterday”–at least, in the executive suite. On the other hand, this fervor could provide the leverage a CIO needs to justify network upgrades that will benefit other applications as well.

By some definitions, Kaufman’s deployment might not qualify as telepresence because he installed the Telanetix equipment in an existing conference room rather than a specially designed one. But he doesn’t care what you call it, because the technology has freed him to do business differently–a little like the way having a BlackBerry has enabled him to do e-mail when he’s away from his desk.

In this case, Kaufman is freed from the need to travel from his office in New York to the bank’s San Francisco branch for meetings such as job interviews. “I don’t fly out anymore,” he says. “I’ve actually hired people without personally meeting them.”

He is also deploying the technology in a new office in Boston and is considering using video links to bring traders in other cities into the organization. Kaufman analysts use the equipment to participate in interviews with CNBC.

What’s in a Name?

Telepresence is a term that’s wandered into the industry from science fiction and technological research at places like the MIT Media Lab. There, the term is sometimes applied to much more futuristic concepts involving holographic images or roving robotic stand-ins for visiting executives.

In this article, we use the term as it’s being popularized–particularly by Cisco, which had its Cisco TelePresence systems featured on the Fox TV thriller 24–as a form of videoconferencing in which participants are represented by high-definition (HD) life-size images on one or more video screens. Then add high-quality audio, carefully designed lighting and a conference room layout that reinforces the impression of talking to someone just across the table–even if they’re on the other side of the world.

I experienced this technology firsthand when I “met” members of the Cisco TelePresence marketing team by going to a Cisco sales office in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The receptionist guided me to a conference room where I sat behind a desk facing a 65-inch HD monitor, with a camera and a corona of lights pointing at me. She showed me that my appointment was queued up on the touch-screen display of the Cisco phone on the desk and told me to press that button at the appointed time.

When I did, I found myself looking into a conference room in California that looked like a mirror image of the one in which I was sitting. The only mismatch was between the system on my end, a one-screen TelePresence 1000, and the three-screen TelePresence 3000 at the other end. Multi-screen systems support larger meetings by showing one or two people on each screen, whereas a one-screen system must use audio cues to switch camera angles between participants sitting at different desks.

Another major player in the telepresence arena is Hewlett-Packard, which created its Halo system with help from Hollywood’s DreamWorks Animation SKG, which wanted to design a breakthrough videoconferencing system for its own purposes. Projects like the Shrek movies involved collaboration between people at multiple locations in California and the United Kingdom, and DreamWorks wanted to cut down on travel by creating a virtual environment where participants in different locations could interact as if they were across the table from each other. The studio executives believed they could apply their own experience of putting an emotionally engaging experience on screen to creating a no-compromise videoconferencing experience superior to anything on the market.

“The real breakthrough was to decide that we were going to throw all the constraints out the window and go after the human experience,” says Leon Davidson, who was part of the HP team that developed Halo and is now CIO of Telepresence Solutions, where he consults on telepresence buying and implementation decisions. Halo’s product design included input from psychologists and sociologists, as well as technologists, to make sure the product would produce a “human connection” across distances. Though the images on a Halo screen are slightly larger than life, Davidson says the point is to achieve the effect of direct eye contact, combined with “bigger than life” audio.

Although Davidson is proud of his work on Halo, it’s not always the solution he recommends. Halo is offered as a managed service, running on a private network operated by HP. That makes it ideal for organizations that are willing to spend more to get access to the technology without having to manage it themselves.

However, organizations that are already investing in high-bandwidth, converged networks to support applications like voice over Internet Protocol may get a good deal from Cisco, which is promoting its TelePresence line partly to drive demand for its network equipment, according to Davidson. That works, he says, because CEOs dazzled by the vision of what telepresence can do for them may simultaneously discover a new enthusiasm for funding network upgrades.

Meanwhile, established videoconferencing vendors like Tandberg view telepresence as “videoconferencing on steroids.” They have more motivation to maintain backward compatibility with videoconferencing equipment that doesn’t measure up to telepresence standards, Davidson says.

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