Designing Telepresence Spaces

Updated: June 09, 2009

A short definition of "telepresence" for the uninitiated: It's the closest thing to virtual reality for business meetings and distance learning (or "videoconferencing on steroids and acid," depending on the age of the audience). A more formal definition: It's a visual collaboration environment that addresses the human factors of participants, and attempts to replicate, as closely as possible, an in-person experience. Telepresence spaces are rooms, installations, and "experiences" built by companies like Cisco Systems Inc., Digital Video Enterprises, LifeSize Communications, Musion, Polycom, TelePresence Tech, and Teliris, and are connected in real time to a similar site somewhere else in the world, where the remote participants are life-sized with fluid motion, accurate flesh tones, and superb acoustics. The result is an experience that feels like you're sitting in the same room with someone on the other side of the globe, or watching a life-sized version of someone on stage.

The first thing that you need to know about creating unique telepresence environments is that it's hard to create unique telepresence environments. Part of the magic of telepresence conferencing is that most telepresence systems create a "business-class consistency-of-quality" for intra-company and inter-company business. Unlike traditional videoconferencing systems, where virtually every deployment is different with respect to lighting, camera capture, acoustics, display, etc., the majority of telepresence systems create environments that mirror each other perfectly, which improves the illusion of being in the same physical space.

Creating a telepresence environment from off-the-shelf components might save some money for certain customers, but you'd lose some of the magic in communicating with other established, widely deployed telepresence systems. This doesn't mean that there isn't a market for creating unique telepresence environments, but, truth be told, it's small (but growing). So, what's the current market for unique telepresence solutions and environments, and how will architects and systems integrators participate?

Telepresence Group Systems

This is the overwhelming majority of the market. Telepresence group systems usually hold 6 to 18-plus participants who face 3 to 4 screens, a video wall, or an angled piece of mirrored glass called a "beam splitter." Many systems will fit into a standard conference room, but some require make-ready, including moving air ducts whose noise may interfere with the acoustics in the room. For most corporations interested in deploying telepresence, the best time to take the plunge is when building new, renovating/upgrading existing facilities, and/or moving a facility. This is the time when the large cost of the telepresence system - and any make-ready - can be capitalized into the big spend for the new facility. Some installations require a custom design to accommodate uniquely shaped rooms or other requirements.

Pro-Modifying Existing Telepresence Systems

There are many potential improvements that can be made to existing telepresence systems, and many modular telepresence systems can be made better by improving the environments.

The Human Productivity Lab recently created a design for "Pro-Modifying" a Polycom RPX environment for a Fortune 25 energy company that creates a stand-up presentation environment with a podium in the RPX environment. The HPL design would allow an instructor to teach standing up and address local and remote sites "in the round," sitting at the table and being conversant with the remote site, and/or standing at an interactive whiteboard. The design addressed a requirement from the client to replicate, as closely as possible, a traditional classroom setting for the continuing education of petrochemical professionals around the world.

In addition to the environment, systems integrators and pro-AV professionals can help with integrating enhanced collaborative tools like visualizers, interactive whiteboards, and streaming encoders/decoders for high-resolution images and AV content. Telepresence vendors, such as Telanetix and LifeSize Communications, sell the basics (multi-camera/codec, control, and display), creating an opportunity for architects and pro-AV professionals to address the lighting, acoustics, color, and any company branding in the environment.

Telepresence environments are escaping from the C-suite and beginning to be integrated into publicly available spaces. Tata Communications recently launched a network of publicly available telepresence systems in Tata Taj Hotels.

Cisco recently built a proof-of-concept for a publicly available telepresence conferencing center in Santa Clara, CA: Cisco TelePresence Suites. Expect publicly available telepresence to grow as the economy drives more airlines into the ground, making commercial air travel more expensive and less convenient while globalization continues.

Telepresence Installations

Telepresence is even appearing in outdoor installations. The Telectroscope delighted crowds from London and New York City who could interact with each other across the pond for several months.

While telepresence systems, applications, and experiences are relatively expensive today, virtually every component, including cameras, codecs, display technology, and bandwidth, is dropping in price.

As an industry, we look forward with eager anticipation to seeing what the architectural and pro-AV community creates with the growing palette of telepresence tools.

Howard S. Lichtman is president at the Ashburn, VA-based Human Productivity Lab, the world's leading consultancy on telepresence, telepresence managed services, and telepresence inter-networking.

Featured Research
  • 10 BI Myths Busted

    The Business Intelligence (BI) and analytics market is expected to grow to $20 billion by 2019. Modern BI software systems are quickly becoming a vital business growth tool and bring massive benefits to businesses, large and small. more

  • The Role of Self-Service in Modern Contact Centers

    By 2020, 85% of customers' relationships with companies will be managed without any contact with human services representatives. What does that mean for your business? The data shows that companies need to offer effective self-service options in order to remain competitive. However, many contact centers are confused about how their core contact center software fits into self-service. more

  • 7 key questions to ask any ERP provider

    Having a fast-growing business is good. Having to overhaul your technology every time you need to scale is not. Upgrading to a more complete Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution can help, but how do you ensure the solution you choose is exactly what you need? To help you with your search, we’ve pulled together 7 key questions every fast-growing business should ask before choosing a cloud-based ERP solution, including: more

  • How Finance Leadership Pays Off

    Oxford Economics recently surveyed 1,500 finance executives and it’s clear that small and midsize companies are growing significantly faster than larger companies. But, there are also big opportunities for finance to increase efficiency, boost financial performance, and work more strategically. Why is that? more

  • Professional Services Audience – Improve Profitability Infographic

    As a Professional Services Organization (PSO), you know the importance of customer satisfaction. In fact, 47% of PSO leaders say managing changing customer expectations is their top challenge. That’s why many firms are engaging smarter project management technology, even before deals are signed, to ensure project profitability. How are these leaders utilizing technology? Find out now. more