Telepresence makes distance immaterial

Posted on 5 May 2010 by The Manufacturer

Were you grounded by volcano dust recently? Or were you among a growing band of IT savvy manufacturers who avoided the travel chaos by using video conferencing services to stay in touch with customers, suppliers and colleagues? Campbell Macfarlane at BT talks to The Manufacturer about the need for a telepresence.

Audio conferencing is widely used in UK manufacturing and has become accepted as part of the fabric that holds supply chains together. Less familiar is video conferencing, increasingly positioned by IT vendors as a way to avoid the expense and drudgery associated with travel. The Manufacturer spoke with BT’s Campbell Macfarlane, responsible for providing communications infrastructure and services to globally active UK manufacturers. “Video conferencing has come a long way in the last three years. The jitter and delay associated with early services is largely a thing of the past,” he says. But is video conferencing a real substitute for physical meetings?

The answer depends on the video conferencing service. There are dozens available, most of which are easy to use and deliver very acceptable performance. They range from free or inexpensive desktop-based ‘point to point’ video systems that enable communication between people in just two physical locations, to ‘telepresence’ systems that enable people to communicate from purpose-built conferencing suites with high resolution, life-size video and rich audio, creating a realistic and immersive environment for a conversation to take place. And in between, there seems to be a solution for most budgets and requirements.

There is little doubt that video adds an extra dimension to conversations that makes information easier to interpret, enhancing collaboration and making the conversation more natural for those involved. But watching your interlocutor in a palm-sized window on your laptop, or on a large flat screen in a meeting room, or on wraparound screens in a ‘telepresence’ suite that provides lifesized images are all very different experiences.

Campbell Macfarlane says a one-to-one video conversation on a laptop is certainly more rewarding than a phone conversation but it is more tiring too, demanding that participants divide their concentration over two media rather than focus on just one, and also requires that they actively filter out visual stimuli in the background, such as passers by, that are easy to accommodate in a phone call but which serve to distract on a video call. Convening with colleagues — or better still sitting alone — in a quiet meeting room to converse with others in another location on large screens is less demanding and far more rewarding. Still, such solutions with their smallerthan- life images projected onto a central screen do not impart the ‘really there’ experience of meeting others in person, no more than television gives the impression that one is no longer sitting on one’s sofa.

The can’t–believe-you’re-not-really-here experience is, for now, the domain of the telepresence solutions alone. These typically require participants to sit in identically configured meeting rooms — often thousands of miles apart — furnished and designed to lull participants into thinking they are actually sitting around the same physical table as their colleagues in say New York or Singapore. Their large screens fill the peripheral vision of participants and give a sense of immersion, in principle similar to that of IMAX cinemas.

It is often said that a technology becomes ‘magical’ when it disappears into the background, allowing the customer to do whatever he or she wants to without noticing the workings behind it. If this is true, then telepresence has indeed become magical and made the impossible possible.

Macfarlane is certain that telepresence solutions can slash travel budgets as well as improve carbon footprints. “It’s not what customers tell me about the impact that telepresence and other high end video conferencing solutions have had on their travel budgets. It’s what I see. When I see someone in a meeting room in London, instinctively and without a second thought, reach out to stop a pen rolling off a meeting table in Singapore, I realise that these solutions have rendered distance irrelevant and geography — as a barrier to communication — immaterial.”

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