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June 24, 2009

Telepresence – The Next Best Thing to Being There

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Virtual meeting Just about every week I step onto some form of aircraft - mostly turbine powered kerosene burning jets.  I leave my carbon footprint trailing all over the friendly skies and often reflect on that fact.  After running for a flight and finally settling into my generously spacious coach seat, I get a chance to breath and relax.  My mind often goes to past episodes of Star Trek or other futuristic science fiction shows where people simply press a button and are instantly connected via real-time video communications with anyone, anywhere - even between star systems (a bit of a physics problem there with the faster-than-light information propagation thing, but I digress).

So, this week I opened a copy of USA Today and found an interesting article in the Money section on the re-emergence of Video Conferencing technology.  In a world where reducing energy consumption and the dependence on carbon based fuels is paramount, it would seem to me a no-brainer to shove some horsepower in the form of incentives into the video conferencing industry.  Companies such as Citrix and Cisco are already providing services to the masses that are available via the web.  Services such as GoToMeeting and WebEx provide a shared desktop environment for viewing each other’s Power Point or by using shared drawing and mark-up tools. This is extremely handy when needing a quick meeting to "touch base" which in my industry seems to be every hour.

On the higher end are companies such as Tandberg and Polycom who supply specialized equipment, services and software to enable multi-user high-definition audio / video conferencing or "telepresence."  These systems are really something and are geared to the corporate level of service. However, they often require a significant investment in equipment and infrastructure to take advantage of the technology as well as having issues with interoperability between competitors.

Beyond cost, there are a few issues with telepresence that has limited the adoption of the technology.  One is simply "eye contact" and shaking hands.  As humans we extrapolate a great deal of information by watching body language - especially someone’s eyes.  Body language can be extremely telling when you are in the same room.  Place someone in front of a camera, and you may not see the detail or the body language may be influenced by the Hawthorne Effect also known as the "Observer Effect."  A person may act differently if they feel they are being "watched." The knowledge that the camera is sending a video stream to possibly unknown individuals or even being recorded will change a person’s natural behavior.  This could possibly interfere with what would be a normal conversation.

As people get used to the idea of telepresence, those issues will fade, but today the lack of ubiquitous access and standards continues to plague the industry.  I would love to have a camera built into one of the monitors in my office so I could simply answer a call and "see" the individual - not to mention instantly share information as you would in person.  Seeing an individual over a video link reminds you of your connection to them and builds the relationship through repeated virtual "in-person" meetings.  However, many systems cannot interoperate and limit many calls to pre-arranged meetings.  Not that arranging a meeting before hand is bad, but it can limit the ability to impulsively place a video call to someone. 

As the telepresence industry evolves, the issues with interoperability and viewer consciousness will be solved or fade away.  By that time I will probably have a wall-size OLED display and a persistent connection with my comrades world-wide.  People all across our organization will be able to walk by my virtual "cube" and see if I’m in - maybe not such a great idea if I’m trying to get something time-critical completed! Something to think about... but when it happens I will surely miss the posh and lavish comforts of modern airline travel. Till next time...

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