What is TelePresence? And what is the difference from video conferencing? This is a topic I have wanted to cover for quite some time…
Let’s have a look at the history first: First there were video calls. Video calls were point to point calls, plain, simple Star Trek calls with one commander on each bridge, typically a call with the commander on a hostile ship. This never took off, because very often more than two people needed to participate. Voila, video conferencing was created! Strangely enough, when video calls again started to happen ("I'll call you on video"), only the consumer side referred to video calls, the enterprise video conferencing industry was still "video conferencing"...
Well, video conferencing had a reputation as hard to use and with low quality, and Cisco managed to create a new category called "TelePresence" that was clearly differentiated from the old “video conferencing” category. Video conferencing had a bad reputation for not working because you had to add 15 minutes to your meetings to make sure the technology worked before you could start the meeting, and bad networks and things that seemed like black magic had an impact on quality to such an extent that you would have to give up and call each other on a phone instead.
At the time, the people who came up with the "TelePresence" idea belonged to a competitor (I worked for Tandberg), but they got our respect for being able to bring to market a value that was quality assured end to end. “One Button To Push”, a functionality that allowed a scheduled meeting to be launched with the press of a single button, was central to the concept of TelePresence as something that, as opposed to video conferencing, worked every time and where a high-end experience with full size torsos and multiple screens created a user experience that was superior to the tile/thumbnail-based “see-everybody-at-once” video conferencing experience.
Fast forward and Cisco bought Tandberg. Not because the concept of TelePresence had failed, but rather because that was not everything that customers demanded. TelePresence was expensive and ensuring a no-compromise, high-quality experience had a cost. And visual communication is about seeing the person you are communicating with, not only in a boardroom situation, but in any situation where seeing how you react is important (like that hostile commander). Thus, if the price point only is good for the board room or executive, you need to find other solutions elsewhere and that was something Cisco didn’t have before it bought Tandberg.
So, how is TelePresence defined now? Not in a very simple or intuitive way, if you ask me. Wainhouse defines“telepresence” as an immersive room experience with multiple screens (and probably multiple codecs to enable multiple video streams at the same time), and Wainhouse thus keeps some of the previous (read: old Cisco) definition of TelePresence, just removing the capital T and P. However, quite early in the Cisco-Tandberg integration process, we were told that everything we did was now TelePresence. Over night, an executive decision (not quite sure where it was made and how explicit it was) made all the old Tandberg video conferencing systems into TelePresence. I now work in the TelePresence Technology Group, so I guess that’s what we do… No matter how a video system is deployed, even on 512Kbit/s from a home office, it’s TelePresence. Mind you, this wasn’t particularly useful for customers. I mean, one day you have deployed video conferencing in your company, the next day you have TelePresence?!
We effectively undermined the original Cisco TelePresence value proposition as something different from video conferencing. However, internally, it made sense, because by including all the old Cisco TelePresence and old Tandberg video conferencing into the new TelePresence definition, the Voice Technology Group (VTG) can be defined as making UC phones (or video phones). So, these are not TelePresence systems,but they are not really video conferencing systems either, as the rest of the industry continues to make video conferencing systems. Thus, we end up with three different types of video systems: TelePresence, video conferencing, and UC phones.
Well, among customers, we continue to talk about these three categories, because it makes sense, so in reality, executive decision or not, the TelePresence Technology Group not only makes telepresence systems (in the Wainhouse sense), but also video conferencing systems (in the classic sense).
I like "TelePresence", it’s a great term, it feels like something that is different from consumer-grade video calls and the old video conferencing category. And we know that the resolution, the audio quality, the size of the screen, and the consistent quality of the experience make such a big difference. I don’t think immersive rooms and multiple codecs etc are good indicators of whether a video experience is telepresence or old video conferencing, there are other, non-technical qualities that really make the difference. Can you get a telepresence experience on 24” single screen? I believe so, but is it then just another word for an improved video conference? We don’t believe in limiting visual communications to conferencing, we believe that video will become an integral part of a high-quality experience of personal interaction where you can collaborate almost as being there. Sounds like marketing BS maybe, but to us, that is TelePresence!
My guess is that you will see a trend towards "video calls" or "video communication" as referring to all types of real-time video calls and conferences. You don't ask your friend if you should audio conference later today when it's just the two of you. And real-time video is at the core of the experience no matter what type of video system you use. And btw, while useful today, telepresence as a category separate from video conferencing is probably going to be less and less useful. Meanwhile, Cisco TelePresence is what you should look for to get that high-quality end to end experience that you could only take for granted if you were a star ship commander in Star Trek.