My First Telepresence Experience…kinda

The paradox of my demo this past week was funny, and kind of sad. It was a presentation to a sports network in LA. I was in an uplink facility in Atlanta with some HD graphics gear and a couple of people from the network. The rest of the audience was the creative team in LA. They took the 1080i HD output of my device and a camera (also 1080) pointed at me, running both over a fiber link to the group in LA.

The theory was simple enough; the group in LA had some specific concerns. I could demonstrate conclusively our approach to their issues. They see me operating the equipment as well as the output in real-time, in glorious full-resolution HD. The fact that the uplink facility was involved made the fiber link available. This was a first in my long history in this business.

There was an audio path to the LA site from the camera. So they could hear me clearly. However, my only way to hear them was a telephone call placed using an aged Nortel Phone system. The phone was in speakerphone mode such that the five people in Atlanta could hear LA.
The audio path provided by the camera created feedback with the phone call, so we disabled the mic on the camera.

I suspect that the Nortel phones didn’t have a full-duplex speakerphone. We had some difficulty when multiple people started to speak at once. Of course, it was a G.711 based call over the PSTN so that audio quality was not wonderful. In truth, it tested our patience.

For all of the resources being deployed to ensure that they could see what they wanted to see, little care was taken to ensure a quality audio experience. While I had some idea about how to improve the experience it was not for me to express my opinions. The network people were willing to make do.

Firstly, I’d have arranged to have a real conference phone instead of the Nortel desk set. A conference phone provides microphone pickup around the room, not just in a narrow arc in front of the phone. Also, I’d have ensured that it was a wideband call, likely over SIP.

However, I later came to see how this demo was even stranger than I had thought. At the far end in LA the network staff were in their offices. As such they were watching our HD feeds on their in-house cable system…..which is not HD capable.

Yes, after we went to the trouble of sending HD across the country they were watching down-converted, center-cut SD video. This became painfully evident when they asked why a certain graphic was being cut off at the edge of the screen. That could only be the result of a center-cut process removing the extreme left & right of the image to fit a 4:3 screen.

They could see the HD feeds if they went down the hall to the tech center where the feeds were being received. The tech center has proper HD monitoring, and confirmed that the graphic in question as only being cut off on the SD version of the stream. That they had to go down the hall was considered inconvenient, no matter that the view was so much improved.   None of the people involved were from the technical side of the network operation. Their concerns were all about the creative concepts and presentation. Yet, by overlooking the technical aspects of the demo they were in fact making it more difficult to reach a conclusion about the matter under consideration.

This was the closest thing to “telepresence” that I’ve yet to experience. Considerable resources were deployed to make the presentation, but through some simple decisions about what was or wasn’t convenient the effectiveness of the entire operation was hampered. In the end the network people were happy with what they saw…but their experience could have been so much better.

In theory we’ve won the business, but the order has yet to arrive. I find it surprising that even a large and well-funded organization can have issues real communicating arising from easily addressable matters. Often people simple don’t expect better, or know that with a little forethought it’s possible to do better.

On the other hand, I’ve long thought that with faster broadband widely available the coming trend in offordable HD telepresense systems could revolutionize how we demo our HD graphics equipment. It could reduce our reliance upon Fedex and airlines, instead allowing use to do more ad hoc demos via online means. Time will tell if this becomes a practical reality.