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– WHAT IMPACT WIll IT REAlly HAVE?
Carol daunt from learnTel discusses how recent advances in telepresence technologies are helping companies create a sense of shared presence among distributed teams, and points to likely next steps, including teleimmersion that will radically alter our concept of time and geography in the workplace.
elepresence has moved out of the laboratories and onto a screen near you. The first conference on telepresence was held in 2006 and the organisers claimed that over the next decade virtually every Global 5000 company would adopt telepresence. A variety of Fortune 1000 organisations are already using it, reporting both satisfaction and a strong return on their investment. The industry hasn’t come to a shared understanding of what telepresence is or a definition that everyone agrees on. In general, telepresence refers to a set of technologies that allow a person to feel as if they are present at a location other than their true location. How much technology is needed to create such an environment? Some would argue that sophisticated technologies are required
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to give a convincing telepresence experience. I’m not so sure. I believe that you can achieve some sense of telepresence on the telephone if you are speaking to someone with whom you have an emotional connection. A second question is how much ‘control’ is necessary for telepresence to occur? Is the ability to manipulate a remote object or environment an important aspect of real telepresence systems? Certainly the telepresence experience is enhanced by high definition video and audio and a degree of control over the environment. This appears to be the premise on which current telepresence systems are based.
what’S CuRRently on oFFeR?
In 2006, we saw four major releases of telepresence solutions. HP was first to market
• Current evolution is toward establishing a sense of shared presence • Recent technology advances create a true – albeit costly – sense of presence • Next step will be ‘teleimmersion’ merging telepresence and virtual worlds
with its Halo Collaboration Studio that is described as enabling “people in different locations to communicate in a vivid, faceto-face environment in real time. Users are able to see and hear one another’s physical and emotional reactions to conversation and information as it is being shared.” Polycom was next to market with high definition telepresence solutions “that enable people working at a distance to communicate as if they were all in the same room. Solutions that deliver the finest detail and nuance of expression in voice, video and content – all over lower bandwidths.”
All of these are excellent advances in videoconference technology. They especially address the problem of eye contact, which we have long known plays a large role in conversation and group communication. They have high definition video and audio and certainly create a sense of being in the same room. However, they do it at great cost.
appliCationS FoR telepReSenCe
At the moment, telepresence appears to be about videoconferencing – and this may limit our thinking about applications.
The major, and most common, use of telepresence is to establish a sense of Cisco followed in October 2006 with shared presence among geographically its TelePresence Meeting solution that “combines life-size, ultra high definition video separated members of a group. With the increase in distributed workplaces and images, spatial audio, a specially designed teams, this will become an important use environment, and interactive elements to of the technology. It can overcome the create the feeling of being ‘in person’ with isolation of the teleworker and strengthen participants in remote locations.” connections between teams that may be dispersed around the globe. One of the Tandberg came to market with Experia, most interesting applications I’ve seen is the adaptive telepresence solution that “creates the optimal across-the-table visual the virtual assistant. She works from home communication experience”. but has a continual virtual presence at her
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desk hundreds of kilometres away. Through a single screen telepresence system she ‘appears’ at her desk in the office and people talk to her as if she were there. If we expand our thinking of telepresence beyond videoconferencing, then a raft of applications become possible. These include: • where humans are exposed to hazardous situations eg, bomb disposal, rescue of victims from fire, toxic atmospheres; • environments that are difficult to work in eg, mining and undersea work; • remote telehealth, especially haptic teleoperation where the user feels some approximation of the weight, firmness, size, and/or texture of the remote objects being manipulated; • virtual excursions – school children are already going onto the reef with a diver and into space to save astronauts; • virtual travel – experience the delights of anywhere in the world from your own home; • teletourism – the reverse of the above where you go on holidays but use telepresence to connect you to the office.
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a glimpSe at ViRtual woRldS
Where does telepresence end and virtual worlds begin? Telepresence actually had its beginnings in the virtual world of gaming. With the development of online environments such as Second Life, we’re beginning to see the two come together. Already there have been videoconferences between real people in the real world to virtual people (avatars) in the Second Life virtual world. Residents of Second Life are certainly experiencing everything from virtual travel to dating (and more!) in the virtual world. There is a high level of telepresence in many of these activities. Sun’s Virtual Workplace is another example of the merging of real and virtual worlds. On any given day, over 50 per cent of Sun’s workforce is remote. Sun has built a virtual 3D environment in which employees (onand off-site) can work, share documents, and meet with colleagues using natural voice communication. Inhabitants of the virtual office building can work together in planned meetings, or can talk informally in unplanned encounters. The spatial layout of this 3D world, coupled with the immersive audio, provides strong cognitive cues that enhance collaboration.
wheRe to FRom heRe?
The next step will be the merging of telepresence and virtual world technologies to give us the ultimate experience of tele-immersion. Research and work are already well advanced in this field, and through the synthesis of networking and media technologies we’ll have enhanced collaborative environments. In this teleimmersive environment, computers will recognise the presence and movements of individuals and objects, track those images, and then permit them to be projected in realistic, multiple, geographically distributed immersive environments where individuals can interact with each other and with computergenerated models. Mobility is also an important factor in future collaboration technology. We’re only a few steps away from scaled-down, wireless-networked telepresence products that allow people to communicate with one another anywhere and anytime. The 3D workplace described above is just the first of many we will see in the future.
There is no doubt that telepresence will impact upon you in the near future. Within five years we’ll see the merging of technologies as outlined above, and telepresence will go far beyond videoconferencing. I hesitate to predict what it will involve, but it will be much more affordable than the current offerings and operate on a more intuitive level. Many of us will live our lives in both the real and virtual worlds and collaborate with clients and colleagues in both. Our sense of place and time will be radically altered as we move in and out of different geographical and time zones as if we were actually there. The concept of time in the office will also change as we access our colleagues from wherever we are. l If you’d like to follow telepresence developments and access links to more information, visit the Videoconference blog at http://videoconference.edublogs.org/
Carol Daunt is Founder and CEO of LearnTel Pty Ltd. She has been involved in the design, application and effective use of eCollaboration technologies since 1986. She holds a Dip T; Grad Dip Dist Ed; B Ed & M Ed (Research) – her thesis investigated the nature of interaction in videoconferencing. She has been published in numerous journals and is a frequent speaker at international conferences. Copies of some of her papers and articles can be downloaded at http://www.learntel.com.au
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