See me, hear me, touch me

As reported in rAVe Europe

Gartner Research analysts predict HD based video meeting solutions will replace 2.1 million airline seats annually. Speaking at the annual Gartner Predicts 2009 briefing, Gartner Fellow Steve Prentice said, "The challenge of the current economic conditions demands that every organisation revisit the need for face-to-face meetings."

He went to tell the audience “… there is no doubt that Telepresence and other approaches to virtual collaboration such as Immersive Workspace, which is built on top of Second Life, or yet to be released solutions will provide a real alternative for many businesses. Companies should put aside previous prejudices and bad memories of older video-conferencing services and seriously investigate these new technologies."

As rAVe editor Gary Kayye notes, Gartner is… “powerful enough in the IT industry that their predictions can actually accelerate processes already in action.” However, much like the “Digital Signage Revolution” that took a decade to actually get going, while the idea is sound, reality has yet to catch-up with the vision.

The technology behind telepresence has come a long, long way from the clumsy and expensive ISDN systems of yesteryear. I can remember being involved in a videoconference meeting with some colleagues in Dubai many years ago. Once we totalled –up the cost of renting the equipment and the phone lines, it would have been cheaper to actually fly there!

With the advent of cheap, high-speed data transfer over IP networks, we now have a practical technology infrastructure to build workable systems upon. And I think Gartner’s predictions of a future in which virtual meetings are commonplace are essentially correct. But we are still a long way from finding the right medium for that form of communication.

Total immersive workspaces are really the Holy Grail of telepresence. Second Life showed early promise, but I can’t really visualise the CEO of a major corporation chairing a board meeting dressed as a Goth. It seems that the business world shares my views, with many big names reportedly scrapping their Second Life presences.

No, I think the future lies in a technology that allows people to interact naturally – with the technology (or technologies) providing an invisible layer in between. There have been some interesting experiments that predict some of the forms that telepresence might take, such as the virtual CEO addressing a shareholders meeting in Melbourne last year via an HD video link and some clever projection.

But it’s in the realms of personal virtual interaction that the real interest lies. There are some really exciting experiments being done by many companies, including Microsoft, who are working on a revolutionary form of interactive display called Touchlight that allows telepresence users to see and hear each other naturally, and even swap documents and virtual objects by “passing” them to each other. Read more about Touchlight here.

So – telepresence? yes I think it’s inevitable; and when it does arrive it will have an impact on business and personal communications equal to that of email and the internet. Some time soon? maybe not.



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