The Evolution of Telepresence

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In the minds of many of our clients, the term “telepresence” means an immersive, three- screen video conferencing system featuring acoustics, lighting, furniture, and directional audio all designed to give participants the feeling that their co-workers are across the table rather than across the country or world. Companies like HP, Cisco, Teliris, Tandberg, Telanetix, and Polycom pioneered the rise of telepresence. But it was Cisco, through its extensive marketing of telepresence as something different than video conferencing, that created this new class of products in the marketplace.

Thanks to Cisco’s marketing (and market) successes, just about every other video conferencing vendor has reclassified their video conferencing products as “telepresence,” and the telepresence space has become confusing; with single room telepresence systems and even “personal telepresence” offerings by some vendors.

But redefining video conferencing as “telepresence” isn’t just a marketing exercise. The core features of telepresence—1080p HD video, full-size images, directional acoustics, and active speaker switching—are increasingly available beyond the three-screen immersive room system, escaping the conference room and moving into room systems, from the desktop, laptop and even from the living room.

The expansion of telepresence is even moving into the mobile world, thanks to HD cameras on tablets and phones. The end result is that video-based collaboration is increasingly available, and better able to offer a richer alternative experience to voice by providing a natural meeting experience in which conversations aren’t limited, or encumbered, by technology constraints.

Telepresence technologies and products continue to evolve. Vendors in the telepresence space are tightly integrating their telepresence products and technologies into other collaboration applications such as Web conferencing and document-collaboration tools; again to capitalize on the benefits video offers to improve collaboration for distributed workers. On the horizon are technologies such as holographic imaging and virtual reality, giving participants a three-dimensional experience of being in the same room.

Telepresence robots are even now available from some vendors; giving users the ability to control the far-end video system, moving it from room to room, using robotic controls to manipulate local objects, or allowing workers to “virtually” enter locations too dangerous to enter in person, such as nuclear facilities or chemical plants. We expect that over the next several years that telepresence will continue to evolve beyond video conferencing into a true virtual reality collaboration tool.

Interest in telepresence remains strong, with almost half of companies evaluating it, while roughly 25% have deployed at least some telepresence systems (these are typically large, multinationals). Through our conversations with hundreds of IT executives, Nemertes has uncovered case studies demonstrating the value of telepresence for a number of specific verticals, highlighting the ability of telepresence to improve business operations in numerous ways beyond simple travel cost reduction.

For example, financial services firms are using telepresence to improve collaboration throughout the organization for tasks such as analyst meetings to review covered firms, investment opportunities, or market analysis. In addition, they are leveraging telepresence to meet with large business and personal account customers; in-branch kiosks let customers in branch locations engage with portfolio managers, loan officers, or insurance representatives via a high-quality, immersive video experience. Large branch room-based systems enable customers to meet with portfolio managers in a more private setting.

By leveraging telepresence in these scenarios, companies can make internal resources more widely available to meet customer needs. The end result is higher customer satisfaction, better ability to up-sell, and higher customer retention.

In the healthcare space we’re seeing growing interest in telemedicine via telepresence, enabling specialists-on-call type applications to enable on-site caregivers to interact with remote staff or with patients or two-way video directly into patients’ rooms, enabling doctors to perform rounds remotely using the patient’s in-room TV or dedicated video system. The technology allows physicians to see more patients, or check in on patients more regularly then in-person rounds allow.

These are just a small sample of applications that can leverage the characteristics of telepresence. Take another look at telepresence and the role it can play in not only improving conferences, but also business processes.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.