Telepresence: Not just for meetings any more
Emerging applications in health care, education and industry offer new opportunities for service providers
When people first shake hands with Peter Quinlan, director of managed telepresence services for Tata Communications, they often start to say “Nice to meet you” but then hesitate. If people have already interacted with Quinlan using telepresence, they may feel as though they have already met him.
Tata is one of the service providers that have pursued the telepresence opportunity most aggressively. Telepresence, an advanced form of videoconferencing, aims to simulate the experience of a face-to-face meeting by using high-definition, jitter-free video coupled with spatial audio. “Once you use it once or twice, you’re hooked on it,” Quinlan told participants during a recent telepresence session to announce the opening of public telepresence rooms at Starwood Hotels in Chicago and Sydney, Australia.
Only a small fraction of the 230,000 videoconferencing systems sold worldwide in 2009 were telepresence systems, according to Wainhouse Research. But the technology is earning a following, and Wainhouse expects to see the technology’s share of the videoconferencing market increase substantially over the next five years, helping to drive strong videoconferencing system growth.
Depending on the number of sites connected and the equipment involved a telepresence meeting could include as many as 300 people. Whoever is talking at any moment appears on screen virtually life size.
As Dave Martella, director of operations for Cisco’s telepresence business unit explained, “You can have 300 people in a meeting and everyone is effectively across the table from everyone else.”
Cisco has installed 700 of its own systems at Cisco sites worldwide which have improved productivity by reducing the time and expense of travel. But Martella also has seen employees meet via telepresence using different rooms on the same floor of the same building simply because the system puts everyone on an equal footing. “There is no back row,” Martella said, “Everybody is right there in the heart of the meeting.”
But telepresence isn’t just for meetings anymore—and Cisco isn’t the only organization that has found that participating in an event via telepresence can sometimes be preferable to being there. Medical students at Barrow Neurological Institute have used telepresence to view live brain surgery conducted by doctors. Using this approach, the students avoid the possibility of disturbing the surgeons and are able to view associated x-rays in high-definition on the system’s electronic whiteboard.
Another emerging application for telepresence is quality assurance or other applications involving the approval process for visual materials. Telepresence totally changed the way one packaged goods manufacturer does business with its advertising agency, said Martella. The two organizations, based in different states, now review mockups of new campaigns using telepresence, thereby eliminating the need to overnight those materials. In a similar vein, Andrew Davis, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research, noted that decision-makers at Tommy Hilfiger use telepresence to approve samples of new clothing styles manufactured overseas.
Davis added that educational institutions are the biggest users of traditional videoconferencing equipment—and he sees opportunities for enhancing and expanding distance learning by using telepresence. Duke University, for example, has used telepresence to offer classes overseas. “It’s a revenue opportunity for the university and an educational opportunity for students who can’t travel,” said Davis. The telepresence equipment can even be used to enable professors to offer remote office hours, he said.
Applications need to be compelling to justify the up front and ongoing costs of telepresence. Hewlett Packard, for example, sells systems under the Halo brand that range in price from $125,000 for a two-seat system to $350,000 for a complete studio that seats as many as 12 and includes four walls and a ceiling. User organizations also pay about $12,000 to $18,000 a month for a DS-3 or fractional DS-3 connection managed by HP, which includes unlimited usage as well as a concierge service to help in setting up connections and remotely diagnosing any technical problems. Average usage is about 150 hours a month, said Darren Podrabsky, HP global marketing manager for Halo collaborative solutions—and 70% to 80% of customers purchase an additional system within six months.
HP made the decision to manage its own network because it wanted to ensure reliability. Underlying HP’s network are a range of Tier 1 service providers—and eventually the company may consider enlisting service providers to take a more active role in supporting the Halo offering, Podrabsky said.
Organizations purchasing telepresence systems from other manufacturers--including Cisco, Tandberg, and Polycom—typically use a service provider to manage the connection. Davis estimated that about 75% of telepresence systems use connections managed by service providers—and he doesn’t envision that dynamic changing any time soon.
“These systems are used by senior people who expect high reliability, high quality and a pleasing user experience,” said Davis. “If you’re a videoconferencing manager for a pharmaceutical company, you welcome having an expert to provide that high level of service.”
Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president for The Yankee Group, agreed. “Telepresence won’t be successful without the service providers,” he said. Networks become more valuable the more people are connected to them, Kerravala said—and service providers will be critical to enabling telepresence sites to interconnect with one another.
Tata claims to be the service provider with the most extensive infrastructure for interconnecting telepresence sites. The company operates three telepresence exchanges around the world—one more than any of its competitors, said Greg Brophy, Tata director of product marketing. Tata’s exchanges enable equipment from disparate manufacturers to interoperate--and through interconnection agreements with other network operators, including BT, the company also can interconnect sites on different provider networks.
“People tell us we have the most flexible and user-friendly offer,” said Brophy. Customers can connect to Tata’s exchanges using Tata’s network or another operator’s. Tata offers several different levels of managed connections, including concierge service—or customers can manage their own connections.
In addition, the company operates 12 public telepresence rooms worldwide and makes its infrastructure available to other service providers on a wholesale basis. Partners can either resell Tata’s offering or bring their own connections to Tata’s exchanges.
Many service providers, however, have been less willing to share the telepresence opportunity with other providers—and that will need to change to make telepresence successful, said Kerravala. “This will require more work up front than most service providers are used to,” he said. “They will have to be more intimate with their customers and not fear partnering with other service providers.”
Service providers also may need to work on minimizing the amount of advance notice they need to set up a connection. Today, they typically need at least half an hour, sometimes longer—and for some applications, that’s too long.
Dr. Todd Rowland, executive director for HealthLINC, pointed to one potentially hot telepresence application that will need shorter set up times. In a recent demonstration using the Internet2 academic and research network, two physicians consulted with one another remotely while jointly reviewing the patient’s records on the whiteboard included with the system.
“It facilitated good one-on-one interaction and didn’t require a lot of preplanning,” said Rowland. But before such applications can be widely adopted, they will need the ability to connect and pull up patient records “on the fly,” Rowland said.
“I wouldn’t say there are great solutions yet,” said Rowland. “We need to see more ad hoc solutions.”
Other improvements that some industry stakeholders would like to see include better directory and scheduling capabilities. Some people also would like to see more providers offer services that would archive or stream telepresence sessions.
Academic and research networks such as Internet2 and National LambdaRail are beginning to talk with telepresence manufacturers with the goal of influencing the design of future systems. On National LambdaRail’s wish list is what Wendy Huntoon, chief technology officer for the organization, called a “visualization environment” that would graphically display large data sets. “People could have interactive discussions, zooming in and out on the data set with everyone seeing the same thing,” Huntoon said.
In a similar vein, Internet2 Director of Technical Services Mike LaHaye said he would like to see telepresence manufacturers offer options above and beyond the traditional conference room set-up such as classroom or medical clinic configurations. “They need to need to understand what it means to create a high quality immersive environment for these different settings,” said LaHaye.
Despite the need for refinements such as these, virtually everyone interviewed for this story envisions a much greater role for telepresence—and for service providers supporting telepresence--moving forward. “For many companies visual communications will be core to the way they do business but not core to their business,” said Davis. “Therefore there will be growing interest in having experts provide these services.”
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© 2013 Penton Media Inc.
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