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