Telepresence is the ultimate meeting technology

* Telepresence solutions

Once again, science fiction comes to life. It turns out that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was quite a visionary. Several of the “technologies” that he dreamed up for Star Trek seemed impossible when the show debuted in 1966, but they have now come to fruition. This time it is telepresence.

According to Wikipedia, “telepresence refers to a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect, at a location other than their true location. Telepresence requires that the senses of the user, or users, are provided with such stimuli as to give the feeling of being in that other location.”

In the original Star Trek show as well as all its derivatives, officers on the starship Enterprise are able to conjure a live image of a person on a huge screen and talk to that person in real-time. Though unconceivable in 1966, that kind of technology is on the market today. And it may soon come to your house.

Network World has been reporting on telepresence solutions for a year or two. Some of the more notable enterprise systems come from Cisco and HP, and Network World just reported that Cisco would be offering a consumer version of its TelePresence System in a few years.

I’m looking forward to my first experience with the Halo telepresence system from HP. About twice a year, I am invited to join a meeting hosted by HP where people travel to Houston from Europe, Asia and cities in the U.S. To save on travel time and cost, the meeting organizers have decided to conduct the meeting using Halo. This system will allow people from up to four global sites to join the meeting and feel as though they are all in the same room.

One of my HP contacts tried the system the other day and was astounded by the experience. “It’s so cool! It’s like you can reach out and touch the other people,” she said. She likened it to high definition TV, where you can see every subtle movement, facial expression and, um, blemishes. (You have to take the bad with the good, I guess.)

If you haven’t heard of HP Halo before, here’s the run-down. The solution consists of three components: a series of specially designed studios where meeting participants congregate; a proprietary high speed (45Mbps) network that connects the studios; and the meeting services that administer the meetings as well as the technology that enables them. (HP did just announce a version that can use any conference room in place of the studio.)

HP has 120 studios worldwide in operation or development. At a cost of $349,000, each studio is constructed so that, when participants in a studio join a meeting, they feel like they are literally sitting at the same elliptical table. Each room includes a set of 50-inch high-def “collaboration screens” that display the people in the other studios on the call. There also is a high resolution, high magnification camera for sharing physical objects on the screen. So, for instance, a person could hold up a computer motherboard and point to specific areas of the component. Meeting participants in the other locales would feel like they are looking directly at the board in the person’s hands.

The network that transports the incredibly clear images in real-time is called the Halo Video Exchange Network (HVEN). It’s a secure, dedicated fiber optic network assembled by HP for the sole purpose of carrying Halo traffic. The result for the meeting participants is no perceived audio or video delay. When a person speaks, his words match his lip movements – unlike the old video conferencing systems of the late 1990’s that were more like watching herky-jerky silent movies.

HP Halo offers multipoint functionality, connecting up to four studios at once. You also can add people via audio conference if they can’t get to a studio. HP handles all the administration of the system, including the diagnostics and periodic calibration of the system. HP charges monthly maintenance fees of $18,000 per studio.

Perhaps the coolest aspect of HP Halo is that it was developed in collaboration with the DreamWorks Animation movie studio. DreamWorks is credited with developing that sense of “being there.” DreamWorks was also one of the first implementers of Halo, using this system to develop the picture “Bee Movie” with star Jerry Seinfeld in New York and the animators in California.

Cisco has a similar offering called the TelePresence System. Also intended for enterprise use, this system is comparable to HP's in cost and capability, though the implementation is slightly different. Phil Hochmuth’s article describes the different approaches the two companies took in developing their systems.

If the cost of the systems seems steep, balance that against the time and expense of physically traveling to remote destinations to conduct face to face meetings. A team of corporate executives could spend upwards of a week and tens of thousands of dollars to travel around the world for a meeting. Or, they could sit in a studio with a telepresence system for a few hours to conduct the same business without ever leaving their home city.

Now that real-time face to face meetings are possible via technology, what’s the next challenge for telecommunications engineers? How about teleporting? Beam me up, Scotty!

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