Wednesday, June 12, 2013

'Immersive Telepresence,' videoconferencing on steroids

Most of us have now become accustomed to using our computers and even our phones to make video calls.

Applications such as FaceTime and Skype are generally good, especially considering that they're free. You can usually see the person on the other end, tell who they are and see what they're doing.

There are lots of flaws, however, including tiny cameras that don't make great images and inconsistent sound quality.

Videoconferencing has also been touted as a way that people don't have to travel. One can do business from a distance, and the money saved on time and travel expenses pays for these systems.

That argument sounds good, but I'd never seen a system that really delivered on its promise.

Until last month.

I had an opportunity to participate in a telepresence meeting using a Polycom RPX system. The sexier name is "immersive telepresence."

I had a meeting with people in both New York and Sydney, Australia. We hadn't had great luck with other videoconferencing systems, and I heard about immersive telepresence and was able to set up a meeting.

The rooms are specially designed with identical furniture, lighting, sound and decor. The tables are essentially a half conference table in one room with an identical half table typically thousands of miles away.

We face a wall where high definition television screens project an image of the other conference room in a panoramic view. Of course, the people in the other room thousands of miles away are seeing our room.

Due to many technical aspects — not the least of which were high bandwidth connections that gave crystal clear video and audio signals — the use of the telepresence system was nothing short of amazing.

Our eyes could follow each other and stereo sound enabled us to hear whether the speaker in the other room was on the left or right. All of the bits and pieces worked together to deliver an experience that let us carry on a normal discussion and almost forget that we were almost 8,000 miles apart.

Telepresence systems aren't cheap. But neither was making video phone calls 30 years ago. As this technology continues to drop in price, it will become far more prevalent. Already it can deliver the promise of the ability to save money through not having to travel as frequently, while providing an experience that's very close to being there.

The worst part of the meeting was that in New York it was dinner time, while in Sydney, it was breakfast. The people in Sydney were eating breakfast and it looked good. If we had been able to reach through and take some of the food the Australians were eating, the experience would have been perfect.

I understand someone's working on that.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 12 June 2013.