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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.

The solutions to these issues are well understood and relatively easy and inexpensive to implement at the beginning of a project. Unfortunately, architects and owners often see them as easy targets when it comes time to cut project costs.


Telepresence comes at a price—sometimes a big one. Prices have dropped considerably over the past decade (from over $800,000 per end to around $300,000 per end), and quality has improved tremendously. But not all the cost of a room is in the hardware.

There are still basic costs associated with the room construction that must be addressed. Unfortunately, those costs have remained constant and now make up a bigger percentage of the overall cost of a system than they did before. If it were possible to control noise, reverberation, and extraneous lighting by applying still more layers of technology, it would have been done by now. The laws of physics don't cut us any slack; careful design, installation, and construction techniques still yield the best results.

Part of the cost depends on end-user expectations. Telepresence is different from using an eyeball camera and headset while viewing postage-stamp images for online meetings. What has been the end-users' experiences with previous systems, and how do they want to improve the experience? Can they perceive differences? Are they willing to pay for those differences?

Aside from cost, ease of use remains an issue. Can the experience be as simple as walking into a room and waiting for the other side to appear? As control and teleconferencing bridges become more integrated with IT networks and scheduling software, this is becoming less of an issue. But it still requires effort and coordination with the IT department to pull off. And we're just in the beginning stages of defining unified communications (UC) which will add another layer of complexity.

But the single biggest challenge still facing the industry is interoperability. If a corporation is going to invest in the technology, it will likely purchase equipment from a single vendor, which reduces its own interoperability issues considerably. But really, how much communicating takes place solely within the organization and how much takes place with other groups that may not share equipment standards?

As long as manufacturers “enhance” their systems with add-ons that operate a little differently than the competition, or release their latest solutions before a standard is agreed on, there will continue to be problems getting systems—and people—to talk with one another. It can still be done, but usually at the lowest common denominator between the systems. This usually results in lower bandwidth, poorer image quality, inferior audio quality, and glitches in the communications process. That doesn't hit the mark.

Put aside parochial attitudes and “gotcha” gimmicks; it's limiting the marketplace. The sooner manufacturers learn to work within standards, the sooner the market can grow and develop—and the sooner we'll be talking face to face.

Thom Mullins is a senior consultant with BRC Acoustics & Technology Consulting in Seattle. He can be reached at

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