The original telepresence business case was built around providing a rich video experience that could supplant...
physical travel, while simultaneously eliminating the physical demands that travel placed on the employee and reducing travel costs. Telepresence systems were at the high end of the video conferencing spectrum, usually built as suites with three or four large screens and identical furniture at each site. Participants were seated at identical tables, face-to-face, with counterparts presented in life size and high definition, accompanied by high-fidelity stereo sound. The result was an experience that made participants feel as though they were in the same physical room, even when thousands of miles apart. Telepresence was touted for its ability to improve employee collaboration and teamwork. There was also a prestige factor associated with telepresence that would give bragging rights to a firm. A telepresence suite conveys the impression that the company is world-class, and would be a perfect complement to a new corporate headquarters, for example.
Telepresence systems provide a very stable and high-quality image. They require a lot of network bandwidth, supported by quality of service (QoS). Some of the original telepresence systems were only available with a dedicated standalone network. Telepresence network requirements added to the overall lifecycle cost of telepresence systems. Even so, it was easy to demonstrate a cost savings by even a modest reduction in travel. Face-to-face meetings with distant counterparts became a reality. If an executive made a monthly trip to Europe to see colleagues, they could now do that daily, at no incremental cost. Not only was telepresence a travel cost saver, it was a travel enhancer, bringing distant colleagues into a closer working relationship.
Where is the telepresence business case today?
Changes in the marketplace and improvements in technology over the past several years have made many of the benefits of telepresence widely available. Room-based video conferencing codecs, and even desktop video clients, support HD-quality images. Large-screen displays are available for as little as $2,000 for a 70" LED HDTV or $3,000 for an 80" unit. This is equivalent to the cost of a 40" screen just a few years ago. Laptops, tablets and smartphones are all equipped with high-quality cameras and screens, making video more pervasive with better image and sound quality. Free video conferencing apps abound, such as Skype, Facetime, FriendCaller, ooVoo, and fring. Social media sites Google Hangouts, Facebook and MySpace also offer free video calling. Hundreds of millions of users have been exposed to video as a communications medium, and this has become a driver for business to make video more available to its employee base. Younger recruits expect to have video available at the workplace, just as they expect to have access to social media sites.
Why is the telepresence market dwindling?
Several factors may be distracting businesses from deploying more telepresence systems in the current business and economic climate:
- Businesses are focused on the deployment of unified communications platforms, which integrate phone, instant messaging, voicemail, directory services, file sharing, Web conferencing and video in a single tool. Because IT does not want to overwhelm its user base with too many changes in their platforms at once, more time is spent on getting communications unified, rather than focusing on an ancillary communication, like telepresence.
- As video has become ubiquitous, businesses have come to increasingly understand the benefits of providing video to all employees. Rolling out video to more of the workforce is a bigger priority than providing more executive suite systems, which is where telepresence is valued. This is a driver for more conference-room-sized systems and to integrate mobile video with enterprise video systems.
- After years of challenging economic conditions, businesses are being cautious about investments they make. IT security, data center consolidations and UC rollouts are being prioritized higher than perceived luxury investments, like telepresence suites.
While the basic business case for telepresence is still intact, time and resource constraints from the infrastructure team have lessened the technology's presence in the marketplace. Overall, video conferencing has largely become accepted as a means of improving collaboration, teamwork and productivity. This does not always translate into the need for boardroom-style conference tables with multiple giant screens, but rather into providing more access to video for the workforce at large. In a sense, telepresence systems offer a firm prestige. Just as transportation doesn't necessarily mean one must have a luxury limousine, improved collaboration and teamwork doesn't necessarily require a telepresence suite. Sometimes a sensible sedan will do.
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