Whenever vendors talk about videoconferencing today, they use the term telepresence.  Come on guys – do yourself and your potential customers a favor – let’s be more careful with our terminology.  Immersive telepresence should only be used to describe a meeting experience that leaves participants believing they were really in a live meeting – similar to the suspension of disbelief that occurs when watching a Pixar movie like “Toy Story” where viewers willingly forget the technology and become immersed in the experience.

  • Telepresence: When Cisco launched their initial telepresence offers in 2006 (was it that long ago, really?) they were adamant that it only referred to solutions that replicated life-like meeting experience with multiple screens, dedicated rooms, and high-speed connections.  Existing vendors like Teliris were all too happy to agree and reinforce that definition.  Today, most clients I talk to think that telepresence refers to the classic 3-screen configuration but are willing to include larger deployments like Polycom’s RPX, which can accommodate up to 28 participants in 3 rows – and I think that should be the definition of a telepresence endpoint. 
  • Personal telepresence: At first blush, this seems like a non sequitor, but I call a dedicated videoconferencing screen that is roughly equal to the size of a human head and shoulders (so that the remote participant appears near life-size on the desk/table where the endpoint is positioned) a personal telepresence unit.  Distance from the camera, lighting, and alignment must be managed carefully by the participants on both ends to maintain the meeting continuity. 
  • Immersive: This is a key word that I believe defines the differentiating experiential element – participants feel like they are in a live meeting.  If you are never tempted to shake someone’s hand or offer them a business card, then you ARE NOT in an immersive videoconference.  Single screen solutions can be immersive if they are configured correctly so that people appear life-size and natural.  High definition is necessary, but not sufficient, to define an immersive videoconference.
  • NOT immersive or telepresence:  Multipoint calls are problematic – if active speaker, or multiple stacked screens/views, are necessary then the experience is so obviously technologically enhanced that it is no longer immersive. PC-based video cannot be immersive – it can be good, high definition, and even engaging, but it is not really life-like.  Particularly when using a laptop while traveling to connect to a videoconference – I call that a remote participant in a videoconference.  Hollywood Squares/Brady Bunch configurations are another example of a non-immersive experience – sure you can see everyone, but it gives you a headache playing concentration in your head as you match voices to positions on the board.  Multipurpose rooms with odd camera angles, and pan-zoom-tilt control are also NOT immersive or telepresence.  All of these are useful parts of an overall live videoconferencing estate for business, but not all videoconferencing is telepresence!

To the vendors reading this I have a few questions/suggestions:

  • Why can’t we use the term telepresence to refer to multi-seat, multi-screen, dedicated HD videoconferencing solutions?  Personal telepresence is really about the live connection of two people in life-size, high-definition video.
  • Why can’t we reserve the use of the term immersive to refer only to HD videoconference that present a life-size view of all participants?  High definition is not by definition immersive, but it is the key ingredient that enables the nuances of human communication to be delivered.

Please post answers, pet peeves, alternate definitions, criticisms, and compliments below!