Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Telepresence and live video: From intrusion to invaluable

In my last post reacting to the Cisco-Tandberg deal, I promised to explain why Cisco's push to bring video to the desktop won't break out of the enterprise's largest conference rooms.

Here are several reasons why, all of which arise from the human factors of virtual collaboration.

Modern teleworkers don't always dress for success. I'm writing this post, taking calls, and "collaborating virtually" at a time of day when my mind is sharp, but my appearance might not be. Maybe I worked until the wee hours of the morning, caught some sleep, and am now back at it. I might look tired. I might need a shave. I might not be wearing a tie. I might be grabbing breakfast at my desk.

I certainly don't want to be on a video conference right now. Of course, if I knew there was a board meeting, I'd be prepared, and telepresence or other live video would be fine with me. But collaboration mostly happens without an appointment, without a formal meeting, often without advance preparation, at all hours of the day and night.

The last thing most workers want is to have the red light go on when they least expect it, or when they don't believe they are as presentable, appearance wise, as they want to or should be. Human factors 1, telepresence 0.

The camera doesn't love everybody. Speaking of the "on air" light, how often has someone turned away, moved out of the frame, or put up their hand when you pointed a video camera at them during a family or business event? Live video can be intimidating. There are many people who never want to be seen on video, for reasons usually connected to their personal self-image. Human factors 2, telepresence 0.

Live video strips away anonymity. And some degree of anonymity has a high value in collaborative virtual environments. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that, in a community space, anonymity is an essential "social lubricant" to making the experience useful for many N-way virtual conversations. We see this with the Internet in general, and in actual user case studies where large groups are collaborating in ProtoSphere.

When a global pharmaceutical company held a virtual poster session in ProtoSphere, participants told researchers they were more comfortable striking up conversations with senior scientists in the virtual world than the real world. Several said they would not have asked senior scientists questions were the event held in the real world.

That's the kind of positive matrixed interaction we see fostered in a 3-D virtual space, but not in a live video space. With video conferencing and telepresence, participants are just as likely to be cautious about approaching superiors as they are in the real world. Independent academic research on video conferencing/telepresence has shown it isn't the best vehicle for brainstorming or conflict resolution activities, either.

When pursuing virtual collaboration initiatives, it appears business leaders have to choose between fostering anonymity, and thus matrixed engagement, or fostering apprehension (or, at a minimum, sustaining apprehension). Human factors 3, telepresence 0.

These simple yet profound human factors are problems telepresence advocates have to come to grips with. We have to start with the user experience (the human factors) and work backwards to the technology. So to come to grips with live video's human factors is to understand where to use video sensibly.

There are times when live video is absolutely essential. For example, when we need to collaborate on the physical incarnation of something, such as a mold for a new product, a clothing design on a fashion model, a new product package, a replacement part for defective device, a skin rash for remote diagnosis … the list is long.

When you blend live or prerecorded video into a palette of collaboration tools unified by a 3-D infrastructure, video becomes more useful, less complicated, and far less costly (which I'll cover in a moment). Moreover, it becomes palatable from a human factors perspective. In a 3-D world, a person's presence matters, but their appearance is immaterial.

That cold sore on your lip? Nobody sees it on your avatar. Working in your short pants today? Your avatar is always professionally dressed. Is that the CEO and the executive team in the room? It's never been easier or less stressful to mingle with them. Are you life-sized, half-sized, or on a netbook screen? It doesn't matter. All of the avatars scale to fit the world you're seeing.

Integrating video into the 3-D environment also has the potential to eliminate the complexity of holding N-way conversations. Teams can walk into the virtual world to talk, text, and share documents, which is probably 80 percent of what they need to do. When they need to show something live, they flip on the video and share the feed with everyone in the virtual room. Live video goes from intrusive to invaluable.

We have the potential to bring together all of these different communication and collaboration tools, and make them work together through an immersive three-dimensional veneer. It's anonymous enough (or shall I call it "business casual"), and yet, at the same time, much more engaging than a community chat, a shared screen, or a video feed.

Now let's consider cost. We know telepresence as defined by Cisco and others requires a significant investment in the infrastructure. As I mentioned in my earlier post, just one room can cost $1 million. To bring live video to every desktop would require an even greater scaling of an organization's IP, data center, and desktop infrastructures (and the related capital budgets).

Conversely, a 3-D virtual world is software that (in our case) works on the same commodity hardware already populating the data center and employee desktops. It works everywhere on day one (even remotely and from on the road), not just in special rooms. And it's not like you have to set aside $300,000 minimum for equipment and then another $500,000 (or more) for conditioning a (e.g., one) room appropriately.

Consider this scenario. A team leader sends a message to someone on e-mail. On the basis of that e-mail, the recipient might want to bring everybody together for a quick conversation in the virtual hallway. That conversation might lead to someone wanting to bring documents or video into a more formal session, or it might lead to a training session where a larger group convenes.

This can be done in a 3-D virtual environment like ProtoSphere, on a commodity hardware platform, with variable network bandwidth requirements that doesn't demand pre-allocating, and is more likely acceptable for most existing IT infrastructures.

Telepresence demos well, and might be justified as an investment for large conference rooms in global businesses. But it fails to address the human and cost factors that have, to date, prevented large-scale video deployments from achieving critical mass in the enterprise.

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