Face to face, continents apart

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Cisco introduced its TelePresence suite in October 2006 as an innovative upgrade to traditional phone and video conferencing offerings. This solution provides organisations with the ability to link up two remote sites with full high definition (1080p) video, spatial audio and ergonomics to reduce the consciousness of being physically separated. Now, unlike traditional video conferencing technologies, Cisco’s TelePresence provides a clear, high definition, non-jittery and seamless experience that leaves most first-time users in awe. The picture is lifelike, the three angled screens give the meeting some depth and the seamless audio connectivity ensures that most users often mistake the other participants as being physically present in the same room.

Anecdotes of participants attempting to shake hands with people on the other end of the call are not rare. In fact, the first time I used the product, I was impressed with the richness of the interaction. While this may sound like science fiction or an episode of 24 to most readers, the technology and solution have been around for over seven years. I have been using the product for over four years since my employer has global delivery teams across several sites. So lifelike is the experience that my team across the Indian Ocean in Bangalore often made certain that they were dressed in appropriate meeting attire and organised for the meeting even though I wasn’t physically present in the same room.

Setting up the product is fairly simple and consists of three True 1080p High Definition 65” plasma screens, three high definition cameras and a handful of microphones and speakers. To ensure a seamless experience, Cisco’s research department even recommends the paint colour, lighting and the table configuration for the rooms. The solution however does require 2-3Mbps of bandwidth and a low latency Internet connection which was quite rare at the time the solution was introduced back in 2006 but is not uncommon these days.

So confident was Cisco with the business application of this product that it installed 100 of these units internally across its global campuses and expects to save $100 million in travel in the first year alone. Cisco has already achieved sales of over 2000 units across a range of financial, legal and marketing firms with another 250 installed internally and donated to philanthropic causes.

Telstra was Cisco’s first Australian customer for TelePresence. In 2006, Telstra deployed four rooms across its Sydney and Melbourne offices to facilitate internal meetings and communications.

At the time of deployment, Tarek Robbiati, Group Managing Director, Telstra International Group, noted “The benefits of Telstra GlobalTelepresence and video conferencing also go beyond this – for example helping to reduce the expense and carbon footprint impact associated with travel such as airfares, hotels and car services. Video conferencing solutions that are built on a high-capacity, high-availability and geographically diverse underlying network infrastructure, allow Quality of Service and the scalability that businesses require across the globe. With the support of Telstra International’s state-of-the-art GlobalNext IP™ network, Telstra Global Telepresence solution meets this requirement with the flexibility to suit enterprises’ individual needs.”

Shortly afterwards, ANZ Bank became the first Australian financial institution to install the TelePresence Suite across its campuses in Melbourne and Bangalore. Each room supports up to six seats enabling a meeting of 12 between cross-geographic teams. The solution has seen a tremendous reduction in ANZ’s travel bills across its two technology campuses in Melbourne and Bangalore by enabling more meetings to be conducted online.

Cisco itself installed TelePresence systems in its Auckland, Perth and Canberra offices to add to its Sydney and Melbourne units.

In 2011, Cisco announced a similar leap of faith in communication technology as it did with its first TelePresence solution back in 2006. It drew on its clout in the communications marketplace and partnered with Musion Systems to enhance its product offerings with the launch of Cisco’s On-Stage TelePresence Experience.

The technology has now been integrated into Cisco’s existing TelePresence suite and was first commercially applied by Cisco in Bangalore, India. Cisco CEO John Chambers, while present in the Bangalore office, ‘beamed up’ Martin De Beer, the Senior Vice President of emerging Technologies, and Chuck Stucki the General Manager of TelePresence, live from San Jose, California. Chambers was then able to have a ‘face to face’ discussion with De Beer and Stucki on the future of Cisco TelePresence, demonstrating first-hand the potential capabilities of the system in front of the watching audience.

Cisco’s On-Stage Telepresence suite has the potential to disrupt ancillary industries. On the surface, the technology appears as an enhancement to the current Video Conferencing and TelePresence technology. However, the ability to conduct meetings and conferences in a real time holographic environment poses a major threat to ancillary industries such as airlines and hotels, which source a significant amount of their income from business related travel.

However, while every change brings about losers, there exists tremendous opportunities for winners if the technology is adopted and embraced well. Besides significantly improving business-to-business interactions, as is the case with ANZ and Telstra in Australia, the technology poses significant opportunities in other realms.

Enhanced mobility of presentation and communication coupled with higher perceptions of peer-to-peer intimacy provides retailers the opportunity to demonstrate a three-dimensional model of a product in stores at the time it is conceived in the R&D labs to gauge customer reactions prior to mass production. This has tremendous scope in the apparel business particularly.

Three-dimensional holograms provide limitless opportunities in the entertainment industry including the manner in which movies, music and gaming are delivered and experienced. Innovative consumer experiences including remote concert attendance, true three-dimensional movie experiences, and interactive augmented reality gaming are a few examples of how the technology could potentially change the nature of entertainment, as we know it today. An AR Rahman live performance in Chennai for instance can be broadcast to a series of live stage venues across the globe providing a true three-dimensional experience.

Sporting event experience can be revolutionized by enabling viewers to experience being on the field, court, or range and seeing athletes perform in true 3D.  Japan, in its unsuccessful bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup had promised to provide simultaneous holographic broadcast in several stadiums across the globe. With the right technology maturity and business backing; it’s only a matter of time before the Sachin Tendulkar’s next cricket world cup 100 could be witnessed across several stadiums across the world through a single simulcast of the event in pure 3D.

The traditional viewership of entertainment in a lean-back, seated experience is bound to change by immersing people into the sport or movie and watch it unfold around them, changing the landscape of viewable content as we now know it. Gaming, which has already evolved into an interactive, natural-user-interface experience will also be able to provide life size experiences that enable users to feel truly immersed in the game.

The educational field has already demonstrated significant strides in the delivery of online virtual programs enabling users to attend classes, seminars, and even earn degrees through online education.  Holographic technology has the potential to revolutionise the current offerings into a virtual classroom experience. Students seated in several rooms across the globe could be holographically transported to a single virtual classroom with the session delivered via a teacher based in Bangalore or Chennai.

There’s more. Medical training can be conducted via 360 degree representations of surgical procedures, anatomical models and real human test subjects.  Further potential lies in allowing patients to be potentially examined remotely with expert physicians in other parts of the country or the world.  This has the ability to commoditise healthcare and medicine into a single global market resulting in significant cost savings for public health systems across the developed world as doctors in India and other developing countries conduct procedures across international borders without leaving their hometowns. Similarly, automotive and electrical design could eventually move to developing countries as virtual models of end products are transferred holographically across international borders.

The application of holographic technology across these realms could exponentially enhance the skills and experience to provide better communication, collaboration, entertainment, treatment and security to the world with skilled workforces in developing countries such as India and consumers in developed markets such as Australia both benefiting from the potential of this technology. The Indian connection across all these realms as a potential source talent, skills and material is clear. The possibilities remain endless.

The writer is based in Melbourne, Australia and is available for comment on me@gaurav.net.in

Note: The author doesn’t own any Cisco stock and has no vested interest in Cisco’s TelePresence Suite.

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