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The Look and Feel of Telepresence, Part 1

Dec 13, 2007 12:00 PM, By Jessaca Gutierrez

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Part 2

It seems at every twist and turn there's another product geared toward making life—from home to the office—just a little bit easier—and clearer, and faster, and, well, you get the idea, but when it comes to videoconferencing, what about more natural and real? That's telepresence's aim.

Telepresence is conferencing made to be as natural and realistic as meeting in-person—despite participants being on opposite sides of the globe—through the artistic use of life-size high-resolution flatpanels, ambient lighting, décor, and most importantly a high bandwidth—very high bandwidth capable of steadily streaming video anywhere from 5Mbps to 20Mbps, depending on number of sites, screens, and pixels per screen. In many telepresence room setups, the cameras, microphones, loudspeakers, and cabling are hidden from view or camouflaged—all to give participants the physiological cues and feelings, such as eye contact and hand gestures, that come with meeting in person. The technology shouldn't even be noticed, but your shaky, sweaty palm just might be, if for instance, you're in the middle of negotiations or maybe someday a job interview.

Videoconferencing, on the other hand, is video communication that isn't trying to mimic real-world likeness, so the screens are usually smaller, the video may not be as crisp, audio may lag or be of poor quality, and it usually doesn't require as much bandwidth. In short order, the technology wasn't designed to make you feel like you're meeting face to face, but rather an extension of the telephone.

Although telepresence is essentially videoconferencing by any other name, just with more pizzazz and more bucks, there's been initiative from manufacturers to stay away from that term because of the impression surrounding the term videoconferencing. When Cisco Systems debuted its TelePresence system last year, many people said, “Oh, it's better videoconferencing,” says Erica Schroeder, director of market management at Cisco Systems. Schroeder says users finally caught on to the differences after about a year.

Because telepresence is designed to give you a true-to-life experience, the HD camera in the Cisco System is stationary. Features such as pan and zoom aren't available like they are in most videoconferencing systems. Although this might seem to be a caveat to the system, its absence was well thought out.

“[Developers] did a lot of research about the size of the displays that are used to make people feel like they were at the same table, that's why there aren't features like you would find in videoconferencing where you can move the camera around, because you don't get different points of view when you are in a real meeting—you get the view that your own eyes have,” Schroeder says.

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