Video Calling, Video Conferencing & Telepresence

Blackberry-Playbook-7-Inch-Tablet-Front-300px The  May 25th VUC call with the teams from RIM and Truphone was interesting. It’s great to hear that RIM is taking audio quality seriously as they go forward. I certainly hope that they get some traction with that strategy. As someone who has trumpeted the merits of HDVoice for a few years, any help to raise awareness of the benefits of improved audio quality is truly appreciated.

That said, there was one facet of the conversation that caused me some concern.  At about 32 minutes into the call the term “telepresence” was used repeatedly in what I consider an ill-considered fashion. This is a trend that seems to be growing and one that I’d like to discourage.


Companies promoting new, often lower cost ways of using video are sometimes tempted to take shots at “high-priced telepresence suites.” I find this very much like a Chevy salesman critiquing the design of a Porsche. It’s very likely out of context. I think it’s worth putting definition to some terms so that we don’t casually equate vastly different systems and user experiences.

From my perspective there are three different categories of user experience when it comes to corporate communication using video; video calling, video conferencing and finally, telepresence. These are very different things.

Properly implemented, telepresence is considerably beyond the common experience of video conferencing. Telepresence is about an experience that doesn’t just show you video of the far-end participants, but mimics their presence in the room. It offers a believable simulation of an all party gathering.

Cisco-18person-Telepresence-Suite

Creating and sustaining that illusion means that a telepresence suite is a carefully planned and tightly controlled environment. The monitors, cameras and connectivity are part of the package, but there are many other equality important aspects to the suite.

The design of the room centers around conveying the far-end participants as if they were physically there. To borrow a phrase from the graphics arts world, we might think of them as “size as and in position.” That dictates monitor size, position, even brightness.

cisco_telepresence_3000_600px

The lighting is controlled to ensure optimal video from all camera angles. Audio pickup and playback is transparently integrated into the room. Camera and microphone positions and orientation are optimal to convey the presence of the virtual participants. The noise level in the room is very low, which includes mounting all the support equipment elsewhere.

Real-time, all-party editing/access to common documents is seamlessly integrated. Complex remote control systems may be involved. Even the furniture may be built specifically for the task.

Telepresence is less about technology than the goal of making the technology transparent to the users. It renders the experience of its use as natural as an in-person meeting as possible. This is how I define telepresence. Anything less ambitious is merely video conferencing or video calling.

Lesser video conferencing installations are far more common than true, immersive telepresence suites. Further, just as desktop technologies, products and services keep getting better, immersive telepresence systems keep evolving and improving.

Even with spectacular audio quality I fail to see how any tablet can truly claim to offer a user experience akin to a telepresence suite. That said, I do expect that tablets will play a significant  role in the evolution of such facilities, just as they are refining the expectations of touch-screen remote controls in home automation.

I don’t mean to disparage RIM or their efforts to deliver an improved audio experience to the end-user. These are laudable goals, and they no doubt have made some very real achievements. I look forward to trying some of their newer products in the future.

P.S. – The term “Desktop Telepresence” is occasionally lofted by some marketers. I consider it a misnomer. It’s a bit like the idea of an affordable Porsche. You may find a product that claims to be such, but eventually find it fails on one or both claims. It’s neither truly affordable, nor delivers the definitive experience of driving a Porsche.

  • I want a system that uses multiple tablets to make one picture. I want widescreen, so maybe 6 iPads across and 4 down. 

    • Why? You’d spend more than one HDTV of comparable or larger size.

      • No one said it was cheap to be hip. 

        • mjgraves

          So you’ll be wanting unlimited 4G plans on all those iPads. Ca-ching!

  • Steven Perich

    “RIM is taking audio quality seriously as they go forward”

    RIM are going backward, not forward. They have failed to innovate for years and have blundered their way nearly out of existence. Anything positive out of them is too little, too late. They’ll be gone within 2 years, along with Nokia..

    • mjgraves

      You may be right, but I can recall a time when Apple was nearly out of cash and struggling to know how it would survive. Moreover, a large entity takes a long time to fall. This lilliputian thinks that RIM will have some impact for a while longer, even as it falls. Nokia also.