Telepresence 101: Can You See Me Now?
We see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face. Words to this effect , while originally uttered in an entirely different context, have been repeated since the inception of the video teleconferencing age.
Thom Mullins, CTS
“WE SEE THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, BUT THEN WE SHALL see face to face.” Words to this effect , while originally uttered in an entirely different context, have been repeated since the inception of the video teleconferencing age. And we hear them again and again whenever the latest wave of teleconferencing equipment arrives and people have a chance to interact with the state-of-the-art technology. Is the glass any clearer now that we've entered the “age of telepresence?” Yes and no.
I was first exposed to video teleconferencing when I worked for a contractor in Alaska. We were interested in the field because of our business with oil companies working on the North Slope and their need to communicate among home and regional offices and their crews in the oil fields. In the education systems, the technology could link a remote village school to resources in a larger city. It was a grand and heady time.
It was also a time of “slow-scan,” or 15-frames-per-second video, displayed on television sets with horrible audio in purpose-built buildings. Ironically, we had large amounts of bandwidth, available only from the telecom providers that underwrote much of the development of these systems. They gave us engineering, design, and operations support; equipment; satellites; and a host of other services to advance the clients' communications needs. They also used it as an opportunity to advance the systems—if only a little.
Now we've arrived in the telepresence age. What does that mean? Just as television is “sight at a distance,” telepresence is “presence at a distance.” It's really what the industry has been after all along—and it's now the gold standard by which the end-user and industry measure progress.
Using technology, can we replicate a face-to-face conversation and make it appear as natural as an in-person meeting? Can we read tonal inflections and observe body language? Will this improve our confidence in those on the other end? If so, we will have arrived. If not, it's back to the drawing board.COMMUNICATION FILTERS
Whenever we use technology to solve a problem, we insert filters into the communications process. These filters include the location and quantity of microphones and loudspeakers; architectural acoustics; room lighting; camera location; display size and resolution; connection speed; and the list goes on.
To one extent or another, we're still dealing with those filters today. So how do the new systems measure up to the telepresence gold standard? Do they deliver on the promise?
For higher-end systems, attention to environmental and human factors is beginning to pay off. One of the first telepresence rooms demonstrated by NEC and IBM at InfoComm was arranged to trick you into thinking you were walking into a conference room where both teams were meeting. Room lighting was correct, acoustical issues had been addressed, and the technology was not readily apparent. The display technology used a pair of rear-projection units with such a thin reveal between them that it was almost non-existent. The big innovation, in my mind, was that a firm was finally paying attention to all the human factors that impact communications.
Audio bandwidth has improved tremendously—the result of using better analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion algorithms to eliminate the brittle sound so common in VoIP systems. Newer systems also take advantage of wider bandwidth and better processing algorithms to reduce video lag.
Still, while displays have gotten larger, the presence of wide black trim separating the far-site meeting participants can be a jarring reminder of the technology being used. And the systems I've observed in action still must account for certain acoustical issues. I've seen people tiring easily because of the effort it takes to sift the useful audible information from the reverberation at both far- and near-site locations. It's still one of the most common end-user complaints I hear.