Lights, camera, action! From video conferencing to telepresence & what you can learn from TV.

A reflection on what works and what doesn’t in Video Conferencing

In 2008 we first opened the doors on Telstra’s Executive Briefing Centre in Melbourne, and a new network of high tech boardrooms across Australia.  In that time we have hosted over 16,000 meetings and briefings – helping customers understand the new levels of productivity and quality experiences that are available from having devices and applications work across fixed and mobile networks.

One of the most heavily utilised functions is video conferencing.

We were fortunate in being able to utilise a new generation of IP based High Definition video conferencing technologies.  It is truly a quantum leap from the older generation of equipment – not just the superior quality of images and sound, but equally important is the “one click” ability to quickly and confidently connect different locations together.

The idea of video conferencing is not new.  The first ideas of combining video and voice communications go back to 1912 with “Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone“, published by Grosset & Dunlap.

Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone – a science fiction novel as published in 1914 – postulated on modifying normal telephones that could display images transmitted by a third wire. Refer to Wikipedia

AT&T first demonstrated a prototype of a “Picturephone” at the 1964 World Fair.  Not long after three Picturephone booths were installed in Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, costs ranged from $16 to $27 for three minutes (that’s $118 to $200 in 2012 dollars!).

Since 1964 there have been many “false starts” to video collaboration.  In the 1990s many customers experienced ISDN video conferences; and have tales about meetings being long delayed or forced to voice only, due to the fickle nature of ISDN calling.  A study in the US suggested that that this older generation of equipment was being used as little as 15 hours per month during it’s peak.

But even though the move to IP based networks and equipment has resolved many of these issues I still feel there is a lot to learn about what makes a great meeting experience.

I believe that most people think about what they see on the TV news as shaping their perception of a high quality video conferencing.  An example of ABC’s Lateline highlights the quality experience taking place between 2 locations.  What you as the audience experiences is the quality lighting, sound and alignment.  What you don’t see is the small army of people working behind the scenes to pull this off.

Picture 2: A three way interview on ABC Lateline. Perfect conditions, lighting & alignment. A lot of work went into making the audience at home part of this experience.

Contrast the TV studio above with the video conference below. If you look very closely you may see people sitting around both tables.  The resolution of the TV studio and the video conference are the same 1080p – high definition.

So what is different?


Picture 3: Spot the participants! A HD Video Conference with poor layout.

The short answer is that it has nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with the layout of the space, or room design.

  • In the TV studio there is a small army of professionals working to carefully choreograph and finesse the best experience for the audience.
  • The video conference is being held in regular meeting room; your standard board rooms with large tables.  Great for face to face conversations across the table, but users have to drive the technology to zoom into speakers in remote rooms

My experience is that Australian’s like sitting as far away from screens as possible (back of the bus syndrome) and that most participants want to participate in a meeting, not become the de facto TV production team aligning cameras.

This highlights the difference between Video Conferencing and TelePresence.  Technically they are exactly the same, cameras, microphones, screens… you can even call between a Video Conference room and a TelePresence room.  On the one IP network, everything simply becomes a telephone number to call.

I think of TelePresence as being the “high watermark” of video conferencing.  Or to use my earlier analogy TelePresence is video conferencing and putting it in a special “TV Studio” environment where it is impossible to have a bad experience:

  • HD screens working together as one window to the far side room
  • HD cameras with a fixed focus and directed lighting
  • You seated and perfectly positioned for the “head and shoulders” view

Everyone appears life-sized and in perfect clarity – the technology becoming invisible to the face to face experience.

Picture 4: An example of Telepresence – the Polycom RPX room at the Telstra Executive Briefing Centre connecting through to an equivalent room in Sydney – the technology becomes invisible to the experience of having a face to face meeting.

Whereas in regular video conferencing rooms it is the users who have to continually drive the technology to have participants in the perfect “head and shoulders” view.  That’s not to say there is anything wrong with regular HD video conferencing rooms, just that in a TelePresence room a lot of flexibility has been removed in order to maximise the quality of the experience.

Its a bit like comparing a DSLR camera with an old fashioned photo-booth:

  • with the DSLR camera an expert can take some amazing photos, but most users don’t know how, or have the interest or time to learn
  • the photo-booth takes great portrait photos and can only do this one thing well.

Then there is the rise of video enabled smartphones, tablets and laptops…  Some question whether the age of “big iron” video collaboration is over… but I will cover this in another blog.


About Stephen Powell

Stephen's talent is in demonstrating highly sophisticated solutions to complex issues, and breaking them down into a simple approach that anyone can understand and appreciate (even his mum). He believes that creativity is about connecting ideas from different fields and applying them to enrich life - gets very excited in showing this at work and play.
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2 Responses to Lights, camera, action! From video conferencing to telepresence & what you can learn from TV.

  1. Matt Carter says:

    Love it Stephen, and couldn’t agree more! However, from what I’m seeing in the market today the one click to call is now extending beyond the one IP network and traversing many across the Internet.
    Compared to when I first got into video technologies on 07, they have now evolved to a point where I get a ‘HD’ experience on mobile devices on 4G, or on my ADSL service at home. Sure, I can guarantee a quality of experience on a MPLS network with QoS, but personally I get a phenomenal experience calling my boss from our two homes offices and he is in Cambridge in the UK.
    The term ‘telepresence’ has now been lost through the marketing departments of the vendors (including the one I work for). Having sold a significant amount of it a few years ago, it’s awesome, but I would suggest that it’s over priced for what it delivers. More and more we see people replacing the old conference phone that was in every meeting room with a similarly priced HD video capability (integrated to the voice platform), as opposed to putting in the traditional ‘telepresence’ room that was purpose built and really couldn’t be used for anything else other than a video call.
    Can the experience be improved substantially through proper design and implementation? Absolutely it can, it’s just unfortunate that there are only a few people in Australia that understand the intricacies that are involved in it.
    Perhaps a consulting gig is in order for you. I know plenty of people who could use your skills in this arena.

    • Hey Matt
      Thanks for your post. You are totally right about “Big Iron” video!

      I have another blog in the works to talk about any to any video – smartphone to TelePresence, consumer to enterprise, mobile to wired… in an NBN Australia this capability is going to be something that enrich everyone; and help justify the changes that NBN will force on everyone, even my Mum.

      Watch this space.

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