Friday, September 26, 2008

Better than being there!

Telecom is mostly associated with consumer services that one can either touch or experience: attractive mobile phones, content services and applications, calling cards, etc. On the other hand, most enterprise services do not lend themselves to any personal experiences. When was the last time you saw your IPLC or touched a managed hosting service? The power of communications services and their impact on businesses have to be often described through boring powerpoint slides or worse, complex network diagrams.

But now, things will change because we have the Aha! service that businesses are adopting rapidly across the world. Telepresence is dramatically changing how executives are communicating and collaboration, in a highly interactive manner, across geographies and time-zones. It is the killer app for business communication services.

What is Telepresence?

Telepresence is a next-generation conferencing technology that uses high definition video transported on fat pipes. This is still jargon. Let us simplify further.

Imagine a conference room with a dozen participants. They can talk to each other, engage in detailed discussions and arguments, or go through a Powerpoint presentation. All face to face, eye to eye. That’s pretty normal in any conference room, right? Now, what if half of the participants were ten thousand miles away. And yet, it was as if they were in the same room. That’s Telepresence. Better than being there!

(see video below)

Telepresence comes with voice activated microphones, surround sound audio systems, 54” LCD panels and high definition cameras that can capture eye-ball movement. Each of the TP rooms is designed as a half-table so that a full conference room environment can be created. A typical room can seat 6, although other smaller and bigger variants are available. In such a configuration, four rooms can be conferenced at a time, therefore enabling upto 24 participants in a meeting. Data / presentation sharing across all the rooms is available, thereby supporting document sharing and collaboration. Underlying all these are high-bandwidth (10-30Mbps) leased lines or preferably, an MPLS VPN.

The promise of Telepresence is to substitute travel that is normally considered essential for serious meetings or engagements that cannot be done over phone or even traditional video conferencing.

Does this really work? We have heard similar claims from Video Conferencing earlier!

I can confirm, from personal experience that Telepresence is hugely effective. There is sufficient evidence, anecdotal as well as research, that one can surely avoid travel – international and domestic – once TP is available. Cisco, one of the major providers of Telepresence technology as well as a major user for internal purposes, has statistics to prove that travel cost savings alone can justify the investment in TP.

But Telepresence is beyond just travel cost savings. Other benefits include:

Greater Collaboration: As businesses become more distributed and reliant on partners across multiple locations, success depends on the ability to create greater real-time collaboration mechanisms across the extended organization. Today, as a manager, I have to supervise teams that will not be all Mumbai based. I also have to work closely with colleagues, partners and customers around the world. Isn’t it far more convenient and effective to walk over to the Telepresence room for a face to face meeting than depend on an audio conference or worse still, get onto a plane and travel 18 hours!

Cisco has estimated that its benefits from improved collaboration (more & faster sales, and employee productivity) were almost FIVE times (5X) the savings from travel avoidance!

Employee Friendly: We live in highly stressful environments; economic crises, security concerns and reduced time for personal and family activities are putting enormous strain on the minds of executives. Telepresence, by avoiding travel and improving productivity, can play a major role in reducing these stress levels. This is invaluable.

Environmentally Friendly: Avoiding travel not only reduces corporate costs but also reduces related carbon emissions. There are ways to measure this value, but at this time suffice to say, this is our small bit towards preserving the Earth for our children.

This is all fine, but it’s probably prohibitively expensive – only for the Big companies…

It is true that Teleprsence requires relatively large upfront investments – $300,000 or over Rs 1.2 crore per room; at the same time, Wainhouse research shows that the cost of Telepresence is similar to that of video-conferencing on a per hour used basis. This is primarily because Telepresence gets used much more, almost 5-8 hours a day, compared to video-conferencing that is used 1-2 hours at most.

But more interestingly, it is now possible for all businesses to use the power of Telepresence. In a model that is unique to Telepresence (but not to other telecom services), Tata Communications has launched public Telepresence rooms where businesses or individuals can use the facilities on an hourly basis. For a reasonable rate, usually lower than the corresponding cost of travel, small and large businesses alike can experience the extended benefits of this technology and service. The public rooms are available in five Indian metros and in London and Boston. The company plans to extend this public room network to at least 100 locations by the end of next year.

(Cisco-Tata Communications video launching Public Telepresence rooms)

Years ago, while watching Star Trek, I was always impressed by the transporter that would let Captain Kirk be wherever he wanted, in a matter of seconds. Today, Telepresence can provide us a similar experience. Beam me up, Telepresence!

(Updated on Oct 15 -- with the launch of public rooms in UK and USA)

(Source: Telepresence vs. Videoconferencing, Wainhouse Research, Jan 2008)


Laurent Bourscheidt said...

This offer makes even more sense in the current financial crisis that is happening in the US and starting to ripple in Europe. A lot of financial firms are going to look at their spending over the next few months.
Telepresence is definitely an alternative to cutting cost and improve efficiency on a multiple levels.
This technology will probably jump though the roof when it become more affordable and mobile...

Srinivasa Addepalli said...

@laurent, I believe the Cisco road-map includes smaller form factors so that it can become personal. The big issue with personal telepresence is the bandwidth availability at a personal level... given different types of networks and erratic connection speeds, I am not sure if this will really become mobile. We have Skype video chat for that anyways :-)

But I have seen a few small players talking of a desktop version of Telepresence... that would be really interesting.

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