Is Telepresence Just A Niche Product?

Is Telepresence Just A Niche Product?
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Telepresence and the opportunity to use cheap broadband data for virtual reality meetings was the buzzword of 2010. What happened?

Today, we are not hearing so much about telepresence anymore, at least not in the sense what telepresence was defined to be. Is telepresence one of those technologies that will die quietly and remerge a few years down the road when its potential benefits are realigned with enterprise needs in a more compelling package?

Several years ago, I was working with a semi-telepresence startup that had a fascinating product to enable what the company described as "visual calls." The company won plenty of awards, was recognized as an innovator by academic and industrial institutions, created IP, but it was also met with doubt: Do we really want and do we really need a telepresence solution to communicate with each other over distances that are greater than one office building away?

That doubt was significant enough to prevent the company from getting enough funding to market itself among others that had a greater focus on video conferencing, but if there was one lesson about telepresence to be learned, then it certainly is that it is a product that is difficult to explain for what it does. Try to make the case of what problem telepresence attempts to solve and you need to schedule for a 30-minute presentation and a lengthy discussion afterwards. The problem overshadowing and haunting telepresence technology frequently is that it’s a nice-to-have product rather than a must-have product .

Some may say that the idea of "telepresence" was flawed from the very beginning. The word itself has been abused by marketers across industry segments and has been diluted to a degree at which we cannot define it correctly anymore. Today, we are confronted with different product tiers that reach from telepresence rooms all the way down to web-based "telepresence" systems.

Is Telepresence Just A Niche Product?Is Telepresence Just A Niche Product?

However, only the top tier is what telepresence was conceived to be - a video communication experience that is based on certain rules to deliver the illusion of an actual person-to-person meeting when, in fact, it was just a video conference. As a result, telepresence - or "virtual presence" - requires dedicated telepresence rooms. An example was HP's Halo teleconferencing solution (today part of Polycom) with elaborate rooms that started at a cost of $500,000 per room initially.

Anything that does not include the illusion of an actual person-to-person meeting is, per definition, not considered telepresence and simply a form of videoconferencing. However, companies such as Cisco have adopted the term "telepresence" for their next generation of video conference technology that reaches from the hardware that enables and provides virtual meetings to the software that delivers the user experience. Cisco's Angie Mistretta, director of marketing for the company's telepresence systems, told me that Cisco adopted the word telepresence several years ago due to the negative connotations video conferencing systems had. The result is a substantially blurred meaning of telepresence today that has largely reduced its differentiator to video and audio quality. The original type of telepresence is typically referred to as "immersive telepresence" today, even if there are already trends in which immersive video conferencing is adopting that phrase as well.

If we do not consider video conferencing as being synonymous with telepresence, then the origin of actual telepresence can be traced back to 1993, when Teleport was founded as first telepresence company. Its capabilities to deliver video feeds were extremely limited due to slow network connection speeds. In 2001, Teliris made a big step forward and pioneered telepresence as we know it today. HP made a splash with Halo in 2005, while Cisco jumped into the market in 2006 claiming that telepresence will be generating $1 billion of revenue for Cisco per year by 2013, which the company says it will be exceeding with its entire video conferencing product portfolio for 2012. Polycom acquired the remains of Teleport (Destiny Conferencing) and Halo and became a major player in the market in 2008. Tandberg, among the pioneers of telepresence was acquired by Cisco in 2010.


Wolfgang GruenerWolfgang GruenerWolfgang Gruener is a contributor to Tom's IT Pro. He is currently principal analyst at Ndicio Research, a market analysis firm that focuses on cloud computing and disruptive technologies, and maintains the conceivablytech.com blog. An 18-year veteran in IT journalism and market research, he previously published TG Daily and was managing editor of Tom's Hardware news, which he grew from a link collection in the early 2000s into one of the most comprehensive and trusted technology news sources.

See here for all of Wolfgang's Tom's IT Pro articles.


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