Warp speed ahead – the future is here

Warp speed ahead – the future is here

The sci-fi imagery comes thick and fast as we enter the specially kitted out room.

This is not surprising because once you slide into the large, black padded chair in front of a large console that takes up half the space – you almost do have the sense you have boarded the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

This feeling only grows more acute when, with the touch of a button, the three large plasma screens across from the table flicker into life and suddenly three life-size faces stare back.

You have to suppress the urge to rise out of your seat and lean across the table to offer your hand in greeting.

Although you may be able to eyeball the three figures in front, you certainly can't shake hands with them given they are more than 10,500km away.

We have just connected with Cisco’s office in San Jose, California from the company’s Auckland office using its TelePresence virtual meeting suite.

In the past, using video conferencing or VoIP tools, these two points might just as well have been light years apart based on the audio and video quality they offered.

But here there was none of the usual bugbears of video conferencing – latent responses, fuzzy pictures and hazy sound.

With TelePresence, voice and video quality is crystal clear – in fact, the picture is good enough to be displayed on high-def, 64-inch plasma screens.

This is video conferencing on warp speed and it is an impressive sight, and a captivating audio experience – with sound actually coming from the direction it originates. For instance, if someone on the left-hand screen turns a page on their notebook, you can clearly hear where the sounds comes from.

With this surround-sound capability and HD picture, a TelePresence meeting is more like a movie theatre experience than a traditional video call.

In fact, Cisco claims even the lighting above the console is designed to make participants appear more life-like on screen.

The only issue that makes the experience less realistic is trying to make eye-contact with participants on other side on the screen. Since the cameras are located above the screens looking directly at someone is tricky, and in our demo, when the San Jose participants spoke to someone off-centre it appeared they were looking off-screen.

Some glitches can be expected though – even Cisco concedes this is still an emerging technology.

And as such, cost is still a prohibitive factor – especially on uptake in New Zealand.

At US$299,000 (NZ$369,500) for the three-screen TelePresence 3000 system, few local companies will snap it up, especially if you consider that to take full advantage of the system two such units are needed. And these units should be installed in specially designed rooms where lighting, acoustics and even the décor, such as colour of paint on the walls, have to be optimised to create the full ambient experience.

Obvious potential candidates are trans-Tasman or export focussed companies, whose employees travel continuously, often for short meetings.

As Cisco’s Geoff Lawrie points out, for a local executive a two-hour meeting in Sydney translates into a full-day of travel. Most such meetings Lawrie needs to attend are now being done using TelePresence.

Cisco itself has deployed 200 TelePresence units across the world and each week holds 2,500 meetings a week using the system.

This, claims Cisco, has already saved it $100-million in travel expenses.

Of course few local companies would spend this amount of money on travel, but this creates an opportunity for any service provider to deploy TelePresence suites which are rented out to their customers.

And once the technology reaches critical mass and the cost in deploying it reduces, uptake will increase.

After all, just a single TelePresence experience is enough to ignite the imagination about the potential of the technology.

Personally, I cannot wait for the day the plasma screens are replaced with 3-D holographic images – now that would be very Star Wars...

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