Welcome to the World of HD Videoconferencing
Telepresence for all? Let me take this video call on my smart phone.
You’ve seen the TV commercials with Juno’s Ellen Page visiting a school and a doctor using some cool, high-def video conferencing? She’s so pleasantly surprised. But there’s a lot more going on than Ellen Page discovering the joys of what is now being called telepresence systems.
Telepresence is really just a fancy term for video conferencing. Providers say that telepresence refers to high-definition video conferencing, though it really provides more of a realistic face-to-face with the person on the other end. Companies like Cisco, HP and Panasonic are betting on the high-end telepresence model—with systems costing in the five figures, easy. Some fancy telepresence rooms for CEOs to attend corporate meetings from their home offices are costing $350,000 and up.
This is not just the stuff of the future. Marriott already has telepresence studios at five of its U.S. hotels and has telepresence plans for at least 25 hotels worldwide—with other chains like Sheraton, Westin and W Hotels quickly following suit.
At the more affordable end of the spectrum are Skype phones and the like, but the result is often jerky video and dropouts with audio sync issues. It’s a cheap way to see Grandma and Grandpa. Future versions of the iPad should even come with a front-facing camera as well as the FaceTime program for face-to-face calling that’s already on the iPhone—perhaps as soon as Christmas.
Microsoft is getting into the act with its LifeCam Studio camera for Windows Live Messenger 2011, offering HD video calling in a 16:9 widescreen format for $100 at Best Buy. Then there’s the anticipated release of Microsoft’s Kinect technology, an interface for the Xbox gaming platform, complete with a time-based object sensor. Think Wii games on virtual reality, on steroids. Futurist and Silicon Valley insider Rich Green of high-end systems integrator Rich Green Ink, thinks the sensor technology in Kinect could be used to add some interesting dimensions to telepresence. For example, Kinect’s tracking functionality can adjust the camera so the speaker remains in the frame while moving about.
In addition, Google appears to be eyeing the home videoconferencing market with its Android operating system and the recently announced Google TV.
Surely, we will see all kinds of video call capability in cell phones and mobile devices. Think some of us have a problem driving and texting now?
But the really big gambles are taking place in the high-end HD “telepresence” market. Cisco recently purchased telepresence systems maker Tandberg for $3.4 billion, and is deeply invested in building a new high-tech city, Songdo, on 1,500 acres of land reclaimed from the sea near Incheon, South Korea.
Songdo is being billed as an “International Business District” and a city of the future, borrowing design amenities for parks and canals from other great cities and connecting everyone living in it with—you guessed it—telepresence systems from Cisco. Songdo planners also say the city will emit just one-third of the greenhouse gasses of a similarly sized city, partly due to video conferencing.
Yes, telepresence can be an effective energy conservation tool. After all, the person using it isn’t burning tons of jet fuel.
Panasonic showed a $29,000 telepresence system called the KX-VC500 HD Visual Communications System (HDVC) at a recent trade show. The KX-VC500 consists of a 50-inch TV, a codec box, two cameras (one for viewing documents) and a microphone.
Truth be told, the system appeared cobbled together with a camera bracketed to the top of the TV, which makes one believe we’ll be seeing many more video cams being integrated into the bezels of TV sets (right along with Internet apps like Skype). Panasonic’s system worked well, and the company claims its strength—besides being scalable to its jumbo 103-inch plasma display—is in its ability to transmit HD-quality 1080i (that’s i, as in interlaced, no typo) video over small bandwidths such as 3 megabits per second, for both uploading and downloading.
Indeed, bandwidth is one of the bigger issues one must consider with telepresence systems. You’ll need about 3 to 5 mbps in order to do high-def video conferencing, says Green, and about 12 to 15 mbps to link multiple rooms.
Other factors should also be considered for better-than-Skype quality. You should look at having good lighting on your face, and the position of the camera will be critical. “You want to be able to capture all players on the scene,” Green says. Don’t forget acoustics, either, he advises. “Home theater acoustics will be perfectly adaptable to telepresence systems.”
Expect router issues as well. You’ll need port forwarding from router to devices to guarantee a pathway for the video signal. To that end, we’ll see telepresence-friendly routers.
And look for many, many mobile applications—if not in high-def telepresence, then in good-enough video calls on mobile devices. “We’re going to see it show up all over the place, and that will be major breakthrough,” says Green. I hope these home telepresence technologies merge with mobile and web cams for interoperability.”
That’s yet another thing to look for: the ability to work with other systems. Otherwise, there may no point to broadcasting your pretty face. Cisco has developed an open Telepresence Interoperability Protocol (TIP) to link competing systems together.
Which leads to one final but important question: Do we really need telepresence or video conferencing at all? In the 1990s video conferencing was pushed as the next big thing, but it never took off, largely because most people didn’t see the need to have others see them while chatting on the phone. Who wants to dress up to go out in your own home?
Has the technology changed so much to make video conferencing ubiquitous? Have our high-tech expectations evolved toward that? Or are we simply that much more reliant on video to fuel every aspect of our lives?
Then again, an entire generation has passed since that time—and there’s a whole new brood of teenagers who are very likely willing to have video chats over their phones. They won’t need high-def telepresence systems for now—but they may well expect them later.
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