Monday, August 2, 2010

Everybody's Rich!

Recently I've heard some people say "oh, foo, that telepresence, it's just for the rich."  But really, what does "telepresence" mean these days?  
When the word was first invented thirty years ago, it was adapted from "teleoperation," used to describe a rather abstract, all-senses extension in which you not only saw and heard something at another place, but could do stuff and sense stuff from far away: you could feel its temperature, kick its tires, smell its roses.  It wasn't just video, not even just immersive video, but it carried all the elements of "being there."  But it was a rationed commodity - it was one-of-a-kind lab cookups with miles of cable in universities, it was driving your robot on Mars in science fiction, it was doctoral dissertations backed up with fragments of machinery and sparks.  
More recently, "telepresence" became applied to a small corner of teleconferencing, what's now known as "immersive telepresence."  This usage started gaining traction when Polycom's Destiny division (TeleSuite at the time) began shipping it with PictureTel components in 1993; that's what my company, Polycom still calls it, and it's a pretty good description.  It's the whole room:  controlled lighting, spectacular audio, flawless transport and one-button operation if you want to push a button (you can have a conference without pushing that button, too).  It's a wonderful experience.  And yes, it's expensive because it carries multiple channels of HD Video, spatial HD audio, and includes everything you need, right down to ceiling panels and chairs.  If you want a no-excuses, best-in-the-world experience for a high-end application like a board of directors, it's a good way to go.  But it's not the only "telepresence" out there.  
Telepresence has acquired many shades of gray since its early days, and there are some distinctions that some people are only now catching on to.  Not all telepresence is big, brilliant, and quiveringly expensive anymore; some is big, brilliant, and priced to make a CFO smile.  In the same way that cars come in styles and prices from Maserati to Kia, "telepresence" is now applied to anything from those higher-end immersive systems to a simple HD desktop system. If it's well done, it can even be used to describe a handheld experience!  
As quality and understanding continues to increase, more systems are becoming increasingly "telepresent," and as UC continues to mature, these different kinds of systems can talk easily to one another.  That's one of the great things about open standards: they allow handheld video to connect to a half-million dollar immersive system, which radically boosts the value proposition, the usefulness, and the quality of experience for everyone who participates.
If you find yourself pondering telepresence, give serious thought to how you plan to use it,  and what your specific needs are.  If you're thinking "video," think "telepresence."  It's almost guaranteed that there's a telepresence solution out there that fits your needs, and your budget.   
Don't listen to anyone who tells you that telepresence is just for the rich.  When it comes to "telepresence," you're rich now too!

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