The Death of Telepresence

September 9th, 2013 by

Is Telepresence really dead? I for one hope not, since I was privileged enough to have been able to use Cisco TelePresence every day, several hours a day, for two years. Prior to that, I never really saw video conferencing as all that useful. Let’s face it, who hasn’t spent some portion of a meeting trying to set up or schedule a video call only to find out there are connectivity or quality problems that force you to resort back to voice only? I have to admit, Cisco delivered on the promise of Telepresence, since my experience has been that it worked, all the time, simply and with awesome quality.

I have to step back here and say what I mean when I use the word “Telepresence,” since that definition seems to have changed. Let’s start with the term TelePresence (notice the capital P). Cisco TelePresence is actually a registered trademark and of course refers to a Cisco solution.  I will use the term “Telepresence”  in my blog since from now on since I am referring to a definition. Wikipedia defines it as such: “Telepresence refers to a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance of being present” and “Telepresence via video deploys greater technical sophistication and improved fidelity of both sight and sound than in traditional videoconferencing.” In the past, Telepresence was also used to refer to multi-codec systems like the Cisco CTS 3000. However, multi-codec systems are now referred to as immersive systems.

By the above definition, it would seem ludicrous for anyone in the video conferencing business to state that Telepresence is dead, since who wouldn’t want improved fidelity of both sight and sound when making a video call?

However, looking at the latest market reports http://www.tmcnet.com/usubmit/2013/08/30/7377152.htm, Immersive Telepresence declined 32% year-over-year, room based systems decreased 5% yoy, and Desktop video was the only segment with growth at 7.7%. In some ways, this is no surprise as the consumer use of Skype and other video services definitely affects the adoption of enterprise use of desktop video. The price and continuously improving quality cannot be beat. Additionally, there is also strong growth in mobile/tablet devices being used for enterprise video. In both cases, I would argue strongly that these devices have a long way to go before one could call them Telepresence experiences. That leads me to a conundrum:

1) Ubiquitous video – I would like to think everyone agrees that in order to really drive video adoption it has to be ubiquitous. That is, video really needs to be the new voice and the ability for anyone anywhere on any device to join a video conference call has to be realized.

2) High Quality Experience – It is no surprise that usage of high end Telepresence rooms are much higher than standard video conferencing rooms. However, in order to achieve that level of quality, very tightly controlled systems are needed. That is, Telepresence systems control lighting, camera placement, bandwidth, etc.  There is no control of anything on a PC, so when a PC client joins a Telepresence call, the quality a Telepresence user will receive from one of these devices can vary greatly depending on the above.

Thus, my conundrum is, can there be ubiquitous Telepresence video? If not, maybe Telepresence really is dying or will continue to have very limited deployment.  While I would agree that ubiquitous Telepresence is impossible (at least for the foreseeable future, due to things like camera placement, users holding mobile devices that are moving, high packet loss or jitter, etc.). I would hope the technology for enabling a near Telepresence experience using desktop clients, decent PC cameras/Mics, and a high BW residential internet access will become a reality.

I would expect scalable video codecs to help somewhat with the above problem. My key concern is whether some type of QoS from the Service Provider will really be needed before my dream of ubiquitous Telepresence can even begin to be realized.

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