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Telepresence systems should offer greater user control

Telepresence is almost as good as being there, but until telepresence systems offer users greater control over what they see, telepresence will fall short of in-person meetings.

Telepresence has been a mainstream technology now for about five years. Telepresence was a huge leap forward for video conferencing as it provided an experience like never seen before. I remember the first time I used a telepresence system. I went into my first session very skeptical, thinking to myself, "Oh great, another over-priced video solution that no one will use." But after being in the session for about 10 minutes, I realized how great an experience it was. If you can't be at an in-person meeting, telepresence sessions are really the next best thing.

However, as is the case with all things, it's time for telepresence systems to take the next evolutionary step forward. In all fairness, telepresence solution providers, particularly Cisco, have done a great job of adding new features, such as the ability to bring in a Web conference. They are also adding active switching technology, which allows for more people to join the telepresence session, including those using a non-immersive system. The thing that hasn't changed, though, is that the telepresence system has total control over what video conference participants see, instead of the end user having control.

For example, a few months ago I was on a telepresence session with some people in India and Singapore, which was a great use of the technology since the geographic distance was significant. I was on a three-screen system and there were six other people on the session. For those of you who haven't used a telepresence system, the most recent speakers are automatically displayed. When someone new talks, they show up on one of the screens.

The problem occurs when the user doesn't want the focus on a specific participant to change. This happened recently in my Singapore/India telepresence session. Someone from Singapore asked me a question, and then a couple of other people said something. I started to answer the question, but I lost the visual of the person who asked the original question. In this case it would have been helpful if I could have kept the screen on the person who asked the question until I decided it was time to switch.

There are plenty of other use cases to support this. Picture a setting in which a sales manager is trying to get a feel for the effectiveness of a new presentation or salesperson. The sales manager may have no need to see any of the telepresence participants other than the customer. In this case, the sales manager may want to see the customer's facial expressions and body language to get a better idea of whether the new salesperson or sales approach is effective. Having the screen switch automatically isn't ideal in this case.

In my mind, the best big evolutionary step for telepresence systems is providing the ability to bring in any content, and extending system control to end users over what is shown on the screen(s).

There are a few solutions out there today that are starting to address this. Vidyo's Panorama gives you a "Hollywood Squares" effect on numerous screens, and Cisco has added a filmstrip to its telepresence system that shows you smaller images of inactive participants.

Over the next three years, I would look for even greater end-user control from all enterprise video vendors. We already have the great experience -- now we just need greater end-user control to bring telepresence even closer to being a true replacement for the in-person meeting.

Zeus Kerravala, ZK ResearchAbout the author: Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical and long-term strategic advice to constituents, including end-user IT and network managers; vendors of IT hardware, software and services; and the IT investment community.

Prior to ZK Research, Zeus Kerravala was a senior vice president and distinguished research fellow with Yankee Group. Before Yankee Group, Kerravala had a number of technical roles, including a senior technical position at Greenwich Technology Partners (GTP). He has held numerous internal IT positions, including vice president of IT and deputy CIO of Ferris, Baker Watts and senior project manager at Alex. Brown and Sons Inc. Kerravala is heavily quoted in the business and technology press, and is a regular speaker at events including Interop and Enterprise Connect.

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