Telepresence systems initially gained a boost in the economic downturn when executives found the company’s private jet had been traded in. Instead they were chauffeured to an immersive telepresence room where they were promised an experience of very nearly “being there” without the jet lag.
The problem was that systems were initially expensive - upwards of six figures for each room accompanied by significant monthly expenditure on dedicated bandwidth. Consequently, early adopters needed to show high-utilization rates to get an ROI. And of course, a significant number of companies were able to do this, using their telepresence rooms for training or introducing customers to product developers on another continent.
However, many more did not embrace immersive systems because of those high barriers to entry.
Things have changed
Companies – from the smallest start-up the largest multinational - now have a huge list of available telepresence options, including on premise, managed and hosted (cloud-based) video collaboration systems which can be used intra-company and inter-company.
Bandwidth costs have reduced and new technologies (H.264) appeared to enable high quality at low bitrates.
And it’s not limited to telepresence. Video conferencing/collaboration/telephony or whatever you want to call it, is being adopted everywhere. From Facetime chats on iPhones through to Skype video on a desktop and visual collaboration environments from the likes of Cisco, Avaya, Microsoft and Polycom.
This proliferation and diversity means video conference solutions are more accessible than ever, driving TechNavio to estimate growth at a CAGR of 9.5 percent until 2019.
Functionality makes meetings more compelling
This is in part the virtual meeting is being enhanced with additional functionality such as direct private and shared in-meeting messaging, document sharing, collaboration and control; presence indicators; desktop-based asset sharing; whiteboards; spreadsheets; even automated transcription and other tools all feature in the video conferencing toolkit.
This is opening up new opportunities for new industries to embrace video collaboration, from customer contact centers to emergency and disaster relief to industrial sites, the military, government – this is a growing list of potential deployment scenarios.
It’s not about those expensive dedicated telepresence rooms. Smartphones are now the most common mobile device for starting conferences (45%), although mobile phones (31%) and tablets (27%) are also used, says Wainhouse Research. You can engage in your meeting on any device from anywhere with a network connection.
A survey of use in a large organization by Wainhouse Research showed real variety in how people work – 69 percent use audio conferencing each week, while 49 percent use video conferencing weekly and 58 percent engage in Web-based conferencing. (Audio remains strong, one-in-five (22%) of those in large organizations engage in daily audio conferences.)
Virtual meetings are enabling new opportunities, driving digital efficiency and flexibility around where people work from while empowering those who may usually find it hard to access traditional working environments. Such solutions are also seeing rapid adoption across telemedicine.
A good recent suggestion of the latter was seen when US President Barack Obama met with Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, using a telepresence robot this week (July 2015). Wong’s argument is that telepresence tools should enable employers to bring in talent from the world’s disabled community.
Looking forward it seems plain new VR technologies such as Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens or Immersive Media, Jaunt will enable even closer collaboration on the ground.
Think of scenarios in which wearing a headset to virtually go anywhere may help unleash even more power from telepresence sessions – enabling the finest minds to participate where they are required, anywhere, during life-saving surgery, for example. An emergency worker can participate in an all-hands strategy and planning conference with the senior executive disaster control team in real time, feeding in on the ground insights to help create better emergency response.
Automated systems such as Wong’s will also play their part in the telepresence future. Robots will enable disaster and emergency teams to explore otherwise inaccessible places; while industrial enterprises will be able to yield near real life insights into equipment status in real time, enabling constant visual checks of dangerous or unstable equipment.
Reflecting the changing workforce it seems likely the use case for telepresence solutions will proliferate. Millennials will comprise 50% of the global workforce by 2020.
This new workforce of digital natives are already equipped to use and exploit digital solutions, which will remove cultural and educational barriers to adoption of such technologies across new industries that may have resisted this transformation until now.
I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.