Is telepresence dead?

[From No Jitter]

Cisco TelePresence

Is Telepresence Dead?

Sales of telepresence have stagnated not because of lack of demand, but instead of because of lack of innovation.

Zeus Kerravala | December 11, 2013

As a technology, telepresence (TP) has been mainstream for about a decade now. In the mid part of the last decade, TP came to life with a big bang that was comparable to what we saw with Tebow-mania. Like Tebow-mania, the momentum behind TP has cooled off over the past few years, and shipments of the once shining star of the collaboration industry have plateaued over the past few years. In football, Tebow-mania is officially dead; in technology, critics of telepresence have been stating that this era of video is officially over.

So is telepresence really dead?

For the purposes of this blog, when I say “telepresence,” I mean the immersive room experience, in which it appears that I’m sitting across the table from one or more people who in fact are located at a remote, similarly provisioned site. While Cisco has tried to stretch the definition of telepresence by branding a number of products with that tag, most customers think of the following attributes when I say “telepresence”–expensive, three-screen, room-based, life-like experience, and easy to use.

The reason buyers have this impression of telepresence is because early in the technology adoption cycle, Cisco did a great job of evangelizing the market. Cisco came to market with its “TelePresence” offering in 2006 and led with enormous marketing dollars, with CEO John Chambers himself out selling the product to many of its top customers.

In reality, Cisco did not invent the immersive telepresence market. There were a few vendors prior to Cisco, such as Teliris, Destiny and the Halo product from HP, the latter two of which were acquired by Polycom. However, it was Cisco that gave life to the telepresence market, and after 2006 we all knew “telepresence” as “TelePresence”.

Fast forward to 2013, and the video industry buzz is centered on cloud, mobile video and software platforms. These are certainly the high-growth segments and the areas that the vendors have focused on. Even the immersive-market leader, Cisco, has focused most of its video energy on solutions other than immersive.

So is the waning customer interest in immersive telepresence a result of the market leader turning its attention elsewhere? Or is it because customers no longer see the value in the technology?

Well the reality is that it’s likely a little bit of both, and telepresence itself needs an overhaul and redefinition.

There’s no doubt in my mind that customers do see the productivity benefits from immersive video experiences, but the solutions have maintained a fairly hefty price point, and the deployment options are fairly limited. Telepresence today is what it was in 2006–an immersive visual experience designed to create a near-lifelike experience where one almost feels like they’re in the same room as the people on the other side of the screen.

This was fine almost a decade ago, when organizations were using video to slash travel budgets. But as users become more comfortable with the visual medium, the use case is shifting away from just being a travel replacement, to becoming a core part of an organization’s collaboration plans. This is why some organizations have shifted budgets away from the large-screen, immersive rooms to solutions that enable a greater collaborative experience.

Many organizations have invested in collaboration rooms–environments that combine video and collaboration technology in a unique, seamless way to boost team productivity across multiple locations. Demand for these collaboration rooms is at an all-time high, but the available solutions need to evolve. Immersive rooms feature many of the components required for next-generation collaboration–large high-definition displays, multiple cameras, touch control systems and robust video engines–but the solutions need to deliver a great collaborative experience, and not just a great video experience.

The focus of telepresence today should be to provide lifelike collaboration instead of lifelike, across-the-table video. This doesn’t mean sacrificing video quality but instead adding to it, using the large screens to do more than just show other people. For example, the solutions should enable workers to easily move content around to any screen, mark it up and send it from a device such as an iPad, and then share it within the company’s UC platform. Also, the solutions shouldn’t be closed, but instead enable workers to engage mobile and desktop users. I’ve used terms such as “telecollaboration” or “visual conversations” to describe the evolution of telepresence.

Whatever we call it, I think it’s fair to say the sales of telepresence have stagnated not because of lack of demand, but instead of because of lack of innovation. So to my answer original question–Is telepresence dead? I would say that immersive telepresence as we know it is likely to continue its slow decline, but the next-generation collaboration rooms will become much more attractive and will be the growth area for what we used to call telepresence.

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