The Future of Telepresence: Better Than Being There

Rob Enderle

In last week's post about how to pick an HD video conferencing (often called telepresence in anticipation of what it is becoming) vendor, I suggested looking at a number of factors ranging from the obvious like price, to the not so obvious like reach, flexibility, interoperability, and product line depth, to the most important, but most often forgotten differentiator, having a service that could help you make sure that the systems you put in are fully utilized and provide the highest return on your investment.


This week we are going to look at the future of HD video conferencing, how it will become telepresence, and a cross section of folks who are in a position to bring that future about. Let's start with what I think is slowing the progress.


Conventional Thinking


One of the difficulties with using a new technology is that we think in terms of what came before and the solutions seem to look a lot like those earlier offerings. The first cars were called horseless carriages for a reason; that's what they looked like. Over time, though they still have features in common (dimensions and number of wheels, for instance) with carriages, they became cars.


With telepresence we aren't yet thinking creatively. Right now, it is the creation of a big pipe between two points that you push a lot of data through in order to maintain a high level of reality. If we could, with this thinking, we would use mirrors and a light pipe to basically extend a window into the other location. But, in a real conference, reality is actually a disadvantage.


People from different regions and countries have different ways of dressing, different mannerisms, and different languages. These are obstacles that can be overcome with the intermediate step that telepresence provides, but are practically impossible to address in person. In other words, the market has been so focused on trying to address the disadvantages associated with telepresence it has failed to focus on the advantages.


The Second Life Lesson


A while back, I attended an online briefing in a Second Life-like environment and was shocked to find that none of the power of that medium was being used. I came up with a rule, which is that boring PowerPoint presentations in Second Life are just as boring as in real life and that their half life is seconds because folks can leave the presentation without being noticed.


Here you have an environment where the presenter can fly, where images can be built modeling real-world events, where the audience can be taken through rich imagery and surrounded by that imagery, where the only limitation is your imagination, and where interactivity can take a variety of forms to keep the audience engaged. Based on feedback, presentations could be, at the very least, altered to address interest and look more like one-on-one talks, but little if any of that is done.


I'm reminded of the first TV shows, many of which were like the radio or vaudeville shows that preceded them. Hopefully we won't have to wait that long before presentations become what they should have started out being in Second Life. The point here is you don't have to make something new (with its own shortcomings) look like something old. Televised plays aren't that much fun to watch, what makes a play interesting is being there. What makes a TV show interesting is that you can do things that can't be done in a play and more people now watch TV than go to plays.


Eventually, telepresence will become the same, in that flying and driving to meetings will become a thing of the past for most of us, but only when the advantages of telepresence can grow to eclipse the advantages of in-person meetings.

Apple/Logitech: Introducing Virtual Reality into Telepresence


Why do you have to show a highly accurate picture of either the person or the room in which they are speaking? Seriously, does anyone really care if the rooms look the same or whether the outfit the other person is wearing is what they are actually wearing? We know that U.S. businessmen often like to go to meetings in casual attire, while Asian and Europeans often prefer being well dressed. We know the decor in offices all over the world is different, and items common in some environments (like cigarettes) may cause distractions in others.


What Apple and Logitech have been messing with in their desktop products is the ability to virtualize the video conferencing experience. While this is largely done for fun now, think of what it could do to create commonality between two very different groups. The subtle room cues in a U.S. office could be made to look similar to an Asian office, clothing styles could be overlaid so that it appears the same level of dress is being conformed to across the world. U.S. executives would see their counterparts dressed casually, while those that preferred meeting be more formal would see the comparable formal attire.


In other words, by blending reality and virtual reality, the result could not only reduce the bandwidth commitment (you'd only need to pass information on movement, not actual textures or detail outside of the face) and create the rest locally.


DreamWorks/HP Advantage


Of the companies in this space today, DreamWorks is in the digital media creation business and HP is in the high-end graphics workstation business. Were the market to move, as I suspect it will, into creating a blending of virtual and real worlds for the products that will likely truly displace travel, it is in this partnership that I would expect to see the greatest advancements born.


The creative talents of DreamWorks for creating realistic virtual worlds and the technology expertise of HP should create the necessary blending of virtual reality and reality necessary to get this all to work. Whether they actually do this will be up to their collective ability to imagine this future and execute on it, but HP retains one of the largest research and development labs in the world and that lab, for projects like this, is tied with DreamWorks. No one else in this space has this capability and that will make Halo's evolution (Halo is the name of HP's telepresence system) very interesting to watch.


Wrapping up and Real-Time Translation


The other aspect that could make telepresence the preferred method of long-distance communication is real-time translation. Word-for-word translation won't work between many geographies/languages, but for scripted presentations this isn't a problem. As long as we're doing the more traditional pitch-style meetings, this could actually favor telepresence as the technology grows to include proper voice inflections and automated translators increase in capability (this is still years off). However, at some point, we may be able to come close to the near-instant translation we've seen imagined in sci-fi movies if we combine the technology with speaker training to mitigate sentence structure issues and/or build up a tolerance for the latency that translation requires.


At some point, the people who make these systems, and those who have yet to enter the market, will realize that telepresence isn't about being almost as good as being there, but about being better. When that happens, the airline companies are in for a world of trouble and many of us will likely get our lives back.

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