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May 14, 2007

Test-driving Telepresence

Cisco_telepresence_51107_edited by Josh Bernoff

Charlene and I had a chance to test out Telepresence last week. Telepresence is a new product from Cisco -- essentially a new form of videoconferencing that's designed to be as realistic as possible. I sat in a specially designed room on Boxborough, Massachusetts while Charlene was in a very similar room in San Jose, and we met for nearly two hours to collaborate on projects including Groundswell. Isaac Asimov introduced this idea decades ago in a novel called The Naked Sun in which the people were phobic about meetings in person, and instead met by a virtual image -- they called it "viewing" instead of "seeing" -- and now Cisco has tried to make "viewing" a reality.

First, what it is: telepresence is designed to give participants as much as possible the impression of being in an actual meeting with each other despite being in different cities. You sit in a room sitting at half a conference table, and in front of you are three large 1080p high-definition TV screens showing an identical table in the other city. It requires a steady Net connection of 5 to 20 MB per second, and Cisco will set your company up with telepresence rooms for around $250K per location. Forrester's official writeup of telepresence offerings from Cisco and its competitors is here.

Second: why its different. If you've used regular videoconferencing (we use it all the time at Forrester) it has some serious flaws. Quality of the image varies based on the connection. The size of the screen varies and so do the size of the faces on it -- you can zoom in and out. The sound quality is also variable. And finally, a time-lag of a half second or so often makes the interaction unnatural.

Telepresence is different. The room is set up so you always see the person actual size -- there is no panning or zooming. You hear their voice coming from where their image is. There is no time lag. Subtle cues (the room on the other end is painted the same color as the room you're in) reinforce the idea that you're together in one place. There is also a feature that allows you to see what's on each others' laptop screen, which Charlene and I used to good advantage. (The computer screen projection, interestingly, is projected below the big screens that show the other person.)

My subjective impression is that this is not like meeting in person, but it has some important psychological differences from any other meeting technologies. It's inbetween a real meeting and phone call.

Charlene and I know each other pretty well and typically give each other a hug before we get together -- that was obviously out of the question (although the fact that we thought of it was interesting -- you'd never feel that way about a phone call or a typical videoconference). Both the small talk and more substantive interactions felt more relaxed than a phone call.

One key thing you can do with this system is to interrupt each other. That's surprisingly important to a real, powerful interaction, and it doesn't work with a time lag. (Those speakerphones people sometimes use that aren't full duplex, won't let you talk when the other person is talking, should be banned -- they drive me crazy!) We move fast, and interruptions are a key part of that. Your mom told you it's rude to interrupt people, but that's highly dependent on the social status of the people conversing. If Charlene doesn't interrupt me when I'm blathering, she's wasting my time.

The other thing I found interesting was this: Charlene made some suggestions about pieces of the book that would require significant rewriting and rethinking. All writers know the internal resistance that this provokes, and it's involuntary. On the phone, when this happens, I just "go along" and figure I'll prove her wrong later, or maybe come around to her point of view. But with telepresence, I found her much more persuasive (and harder to ignore). That is, look someone in the eye and if you're right, they can see it. Telepresence can be persuasive. This should be interesting to people who need to persuade: salespeople and managers, for example. (Politicians?)

The system still has a few flaws. For one, strangely, the transmission of the image from your laptop doesn't quite keep up with full-motion -- when one of us was looking at YouTube, the other saw very jerky motion. This is strange, given the laptop information is fully digital and the screens just above it were showing full motion HDTV images of people with no problem.

Second, we had to conference in a colleague at one point. The phone on the desk is for telepresence only, and can't make phone calls. There is another phone in the room but it's on the wall, 10 feet away. So we had the absurd experience of using my mobile phone, on speakerphone, with a scratchy  disembodied voice coming out as we looked at each other in hyperreal detail. Less than ideal.

We're looking forward to trying out HP's similar system, HALO, and we'll provide you with an update when we do.

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Kim Kobza

Very helpful!

Ken Savage

AWESOME setup for my XBox360 gaming.


Funny you should mention hugs. In college, I attended a half-hour talk where they discussed a similar kind of room. Their design (this was 2002) involved two square rooms, split by the diagonal, and you can only be in one half of the room. Via a similar setup of cameras and screens filling the diagonal wall, it seems as though you're in a square room, even though you can only move in half of it. AND, you see the other people, life-size.

In fact, they said that when people started really getting comfortable with it, it was rather common for participants to walk up to the screen from either "side", and then ... shake hands. Not in any physical sense, but to anyone watching, as close to it as you can get.

Ben Martin, CAE

Ah, so THIS is the technology is being shown in the 24 series (Kiefer Sutherland, et. al.). I just bought my mom a webcam so she could video chat with our daughter over Skype. Shoulda held off a few weeks. ;-)

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