First Impressions of TelePresence

I recently participated in my first TelePresence meeting. If you haven’t seen this technology, imagine videoconferencing, but life-size and set up so it feels more like you’re physically in the same room. In the US, you may have seen Cisco’s commercials with Ellen Page where she visits a classroom that is taking a “field trip” to China. Here’s another video showing the technology to give you an idea of what it’s like. This is about an orchestra conducting auditions with TelePresence (I thought this was a bit more interesting than some of the more marketing-heavy videos.)

We’re going to be using TelePresence for significant portions of the training we’re developing, and I wanted to record some of my initial impressions.

It’s Really Cool

First of all, it is really cool technology. A huge amount of work and planning has clearly gone into making this experience seamless, down to details like painting the wall the same color in each location so the screen blends in with your own physical location. I didn’t quite get the full effect due to our setup (more on that later), but I can see how this would actually give you a sense of “being there.” Even with the limited interaction I had actually on camera, I still felt more connection with colleagues in Amsterdam than I have felt in all my WebEx meetings. It’s not quite meeting face-to-face, but it’s pretty darn good.

I also am struck by how amazing it is that we can have a real-time meeting with people in three US states, Canada, England, and the Netherlands. I have all these global conversations via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and so on all the time, but I hope all these connections never stop being remarkable.

Conversation

When we were actually engaging in conversation, I felt like that was when the technology was at its strongest. Unfortunately, this was a 3-hour meeting with a string of PowerPoint presentations. Lesson learned: if you’re going to use this, don’t waste it on lecture. A PowerPoint presentation will work just as well with WebEx (or just a recording). This is best when it’s interactive. But, I wouldn’t want to do 3 hours of lecture for training anyway; this just reinforced the idea that the technology doesn’t change that.

Limit Muting

At the beginning of the meeting, someone asked about the etiquette for using a multipoint TelePresence (“multipoint” means more than a one-to-one conversation). Should we mute ourselves when we’re not presenting? We decided to mute, similar to what we would do with a big group in a web conferencing tool like WebEx or Elluminate. But I think it was the wrong choice. When our room was muted, I just didn’t feel as engaged as when our room mike was on. Just like in a webinar, it’s easier to multitask or split your attention if you’re not talking and actively involved. For training purposes, we realized that it would be better to have everyone remain unmuted. It’s OK to put yourself on mute for a few moments if there’s an outside distraction or a quick side conversation. But muting for a long period of time makes it too easy to tune out.

Don’t Overload the Room

One of the problems we had with our session is that we had more people in the room than official seats. TelePresence rooms are usually designed with a specific number of seats. The microphones and video cameras are all aligned based on that number of seats. With five people in a room intended for three, two of us were always off camera. With most physical classrooms, you can cram a few more people in without causing more than inconvenience. With TelePresence, overloading the room meant the extra people (including me) couldn’t really participate.

Your Reactions

Have you used TelePresence, either for meetings or training? I’m very interested to hear what others have learned using this technology.

Further Reading

Madison Area Technical College (MATC) has completed pilots with TelePresence rooms. Read their article on connecting students across multiple locations and TelePresence training materials (including teaching best practices) for more info.

3 thoughts on “First Impressions of TelePresence

  1. This is a really interesting technology.. but although I can see how it is useful when auditioning for an orchestra, for example, I wonder about the cost of setting it up and using it, and then if it would be useful enough to warrant the cost. I can see how seeing how the person sets up and plays and tunes their instrument is useful, but for doing a lecture (like you stated) or a regular conference call/meeting, I don’t see how it could be much more useful than a regular Skype call, for example.. if the cost would be great. But it is interesting and I wonder if it will be put in greater use soon. Great post!

    • The cost is definitely a consideration. I suspect that this is one of those technologies like virtual worlds have been. You can invest a lot into it, but if you don’t really design learning to take full advantage of what this technology lets you do, you’ll waste a lot of money. The thing is, I don’t know quite yet what is the best way to use the TelePresence so we’re really getting the most out of it. But, it’s going to be very interesting in the next few months figuring it out!

  2. I absolutely love TelePresence! I was just exposed to this last week up close and personal! I am an Instructional Technology student doing an internship with a Major Electronics Coporation and I attend almost weekly Video Teleconferences with our development team in Punai, India. The clarity of both audio and video is literally astounding! So astounding, in fact, that sometimes people in these conferences forget where they are and pretend to pass a piece of paper across the table to their video counterparts, because for a brief second they honestly believe the people are in the room with you! (yes, I witnessed this, haha) It is such a realistic atmoshpehere, and with properly working stereo surround souns, you can hear from the left speaker someone on the left side of the room talking, and vice versa. Definitely expensive, but major corporations can definitely benefit from this technology because of the international communications that are required. It is great for team building, sharing important documents and presentations, and thoroughly engaging. However, like stated above, it is very costly to run. One hour is literally a few thousands of dollars, so I am told!

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