What is telepresence?

01 January 2009 |


Telepresence refers to a set of technologies that enables a user to have the experience of being in a location they are not actually present in.

It requires that the user or users should feel fully engaged in the distant location and have the sense that they are engaged in eye-to-eye contact.

This is brought about by high-definition video and voice two-way communication in a dedicated room that, via the use of similar decoration and furnishing at each end and multiple 50 inch plasma screens, brings about the illusion of being in the same place.

The most basic example of telepresence is traditional telephony which provides the experience of two people in different locations having a conversation with each other – not just talking to their telephones.

It’s another name for video conferencing?

Conferencing is just one aspect of telepresence. There are many other applications: collaborative working, remote surgery and education. Some companies even use telepresence in dangerous locations such as under the sea or deep within the earth to allow employees to “visit” sites without putting themselves at risk. However, its main application in the short to medium term will be in the corporate conferencing arena.

How did telepresence come about?

The first commercially successful telepresence provider was Teleport, which was established in 1993. The original intention was to develop a system to allow families to interact across great distances without the hassle and cost of flying. Hilton Hotels entered an agreement to install systems in its hotels but usage was low and the idea lost momentum. The idea did not truly catch on until the mid 2000s when both Cisco Systems and HP recognised the applications for telepresence in the corporate arena and developed systems accordingly.

There are two key dynamics that are helping telepresence to become more widely adopted. The political climate has meant executives are less willing to travel and the increased awareness of environmental issues has meant corporations are keen to reduce their environmental impact via reducing airline travel. In comparison to video conferencing, telepresence is claimed to be easier for users to set up and use and offer greater satisfaction in terms of its ability to replicate in-person meetings and the benefits of face-to-face interaction.

How does telepresence work?

Telepresence systems are composed of three essential sub-systems; the home site technology which interfaces with the communications link, the communications link itself and the remote site technology. In terms of home site technology, which is broadly similar to the remote site technology, the user needs to be presented with video, audio and display systems and a means to control the session.

When it comes to the communications link, any link may be used by a telepresence system. The specific type selected will depend on factors such as the distance between the home site and the remote location, the bandwidth requirements and the sensitivity of the system to latency and delays in the link.

The highest quality would, obviously, be available from a direct umbilical link between the home and remote sites but Cisco Systems claims its Telepresence solution uses standard IP technology deployed in corporations and runs on an integrated voice, video and data network. The offering has capabilities for ensuring quality of service, security, reliability and high availability for high bandwidth applications such as high-definition video, which can require 1Mbps to 5Mbps, depending on resolution.

Prospects for the uptake of telepresence

There has been a resurgence of interest in telepresence over the last two years and global corporations are beginning to recognise that the technology has the potential to reduce the costs, stress and carbon emissions associated with long distance travel, while simultaneously providing a platform for productivity gains.

Analyst firm Frost & Sullivan in its European Telepresence Markets 2007 report, predicts that the European telepresence market for products and services is expected to reach $409.6 million by 2013, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 56.5% from 2006 to 2013.
 
A similar Frost & Sullivan report covering the Asia-Pacific market projects CAGR of 59.6% in the same period, with a market size of $250.8 millon achieved by the end of 2013. Wainhouse Research predicts the market is likely to grow at well over 100% per year for the next three years but warns the global telepresence market is unlikely to reach $1 billion by 2011.

What is the barrier to greater uptake?

Cost is, without doubt, the single most limiting factor for the uptake of the technology. With typical room installations costing upwards of $250,000 exclusive of network charges, the technology remains the preserve of multinational corporations.

For instance, HP’s solution requires a DS3 connection for every room, which would entail a monthly charge of approximately $18,000. That sort of cost only begins to stack up when the traditional air travel and associated costs of large organisations can be offset against it. There remains a very long way to go if telepresence is to become a mass-market phenomenon.