Defining Telepresence

6:30 AM -- After reading this story on a telepresence partnership, I wondered: Is there really a such thing as "low end" telepresence, as Tandberg and other vendors keep suggesting?

I really don't think so.

Telepresence is something very specific, and it involves the use of the Internet and Internet technologies in a way that's incredibly different, and much more real, than simply watching someone talk on a high-definition TV.

Telepresence is not video conferencing; I can do that on my laptop with Skype. For free. And Skype's service is damn good.

Telepresence is not a buzzword. It means something. It communicates your presence from a distance. That simply can't be done unless, at some point in a conversation, I simply forget we're not in the same place. That's really what it means.

So I don't want to refer to all video-based conferencing as video conferencing. But I am wondering how companies can let a vendor get away with selling $10,000 worth of kit and calling it telepresence.

It has to cost something more than $10,000 to make me forget I'm not actually in the same room as someone else, doesn't it? If you're selling telepresence:

  • The sound shouldn't be coming from one place. It should be ambient.
  • The images must be actual size. No exceptions.
  • There should be no delay in the speech or picture.
  • The sound should change as someone changes their position in the room.
Those are the telepresence table stakes. And, in my experience, even if you get the technology right, there's no place to put a true telepresence room in most office buildings, with their paper-thin walls and comfy-as-concrete carpeting. You literally have to rebuild rooms and tear stuff up if you want to have real telepresence.

This is a special thing we're talking about. The reason for telepresence is that it should be aiding valuable relationships. Or, at the very least, conveying valuable information (say, an overseas neurosurgery demonstration) in a remarkably lifelike way.

In that basic positioning it seems that Cisco is really the only company that has come close to treating telepresence as it should be treated. It's high-end. It's cutting edge. You can't afford it. John Chambers can, but he'd still have to suffer a credit check.

Of course, Cisco's so good at marketing that they'll inevitably go overboard and make it seem as if telepresence is for everyone. Again, Skype is for everyone. Telepresence is, for now, for kings and king makers.

That said, I think the industry, press included, is giving too much attention to a bunch of random marketing partnership and baby steps in video conferencing. Let's stop and think about what telepresence really is and work harder to call out only the most impressive of accomplishments in the science and art of transmitting presence over distance.

— Phil Harvey, Editor, Light Reading

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