Facing increased security and long delays for business travelers at U.S. airports, many companies are turning to videoconferencing to bring far-flung groups together in what should pass for a face-to-face meeting. Basic video conference isn’t cheap: A Chicago Tribune article reports that video-enabled Kinko’s shops will set up a two-party videoconference for US$450 per hour. Still, that approach is easier and often less expensive than sending someone to be there in person.
Granted, you don’t have to run downtown to a copy shop to set up a videoconference. The proliferation of inexpensive Webcams has made it possible to outfit employee desktops with crude videoconferencing capability at less than $100 per desk. The drawback is that most network managers place stringent limits on the use of video and other streaming media because the bandwidth such applications consume is all out of proportion to their usefulness in daily business life.
But even if your network has bandwidth to burn, traditional videoconferencing leaves us, well, flat. There’s no way to make eye contact, and it’s hard to relate to miniaturized talking heads. We’ve seen a number of approaches to the problem of adding a third dimension to traditional video, most of which haven’t evolved very far from the 3-D glasses handed out in movie theatres back in the 1950s.
Goggles and other impediments might be suitable for gaming enthusiasts, but they don’t work in the corporate world. They’re even less practical in presenting to scores or hundreds of people, such as training environments where instructors are in high demand.
Inevitably, the hopes for 3-D videoconferencing rest on projecting a sort of hologram, so that the subject of the presentation appears to the viewers in normal space. Although this is nothing new to science-fiction fans, up to now it has been a pipe dream fuelled by Hollywood special effects. But that’s changing thanks in no small part to years of research and good old trial-and-error efforts on the part of innumerable university and corporate researchers. Just in time for the start of the 21st century, holograms are moving from credit cards toward the conference room.
Dallas-based Teleportec Ltd. may have an unshakable lead in bringing 3-D videoconferencing – or in the company’s parlance, “teleportation” – technology to market. Much of the technology is patented or patent-pending, but at its base, teleportation uses familiar video standards such as H.320 and H.323 and builds on that foundation, thus allowing customers to continue using their existing videoconference networks with Teleportec’s equipment.
The necessary bandwidth isn’t much by today’s standards: A solid 384Kbps (kilobits per second) connection is enough for a simple head-and-shoulders presentation. Larger images, such as head-to-toe shots or group presentations, can benefit from a fatter Internet pipe or a dedicated connection. Teleportec is currently pinning its hopes on Internet 2’s potential for a smoother ride than conventional Internet connections can provide.
Buying or leasing Teleportec’s hardware isn’t cheap – in the neighbourhood of $60,000 for purchase or $4,000 to $5,000 monthly for leasing. Use through an executive suite provider such as HQ Global Workspaces runs $475 hourly for a two-site call ($200 per site plus $75 for ISDN charges), which is right in line with prices for a 2-D conference at Kinko’s.
Although 3-D videoconferencing is still in its infancy, it’s clear that there’s a demand for an alternative to the dilemma of travel-intensive in-the-flesh meetings versus lifeless 2-D video. Beyond business meetings, the need to train far-flung groups of employees and students is increasing. Long-distance learning suffers today from a lack of interactivity, and digital teleportation may provide the answer. Stereoscopic TV may still be in the realm of sci-fi, but the potential for technologies such as Teleportec’s is too great to be ignored.
Teleportec Digital Teleportation
Teleportec’s “digital teleportation” technology allows conference participants the luxury of eye contact with a life-size image through a unique placement of cameras and imaging hardware, and a sound technical foundation.
Teleportec’s product line scales from a desktop units that provides a head-and-shoulders picture to a lectern-size units that projects a life-size, waist-up image of the presenter up to a “teleportation theatre” that allows the head-to-toe display of a boardroom-sized group.
But the company’s vision is directed more toward building a network of partnerships to provide the technology through third-party providers of executive suite services. One such provider, HQ Global Workspaces, assisted us in trying out the technology in a conference call between offices in San Francisco and Dallas.
During our call, we found it easy to forget that we were looking at a trick of the eye instead of a live human. As we moved about the room, our interlocutor was able to address us and maintain eye contact as if he were physically present. We did notice some pixilation in the video feed over ISDN at 384Kbps, but we had to look for it at close range. Faster transmission rates over secured IP connections at half-T1 or better rates should eliminate that problem.
Whether or not Teleportec’s strategy works, it does have a solid, affordable 3-D videoconferencing offering.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Executive Summary: Traditional 2-D videoconferencing is now cheap enough to deploy widely, but network bandwidth concerns and unsatisfactory results make more lifelike alternatives appealing.
Test Center Perspective: Practical 3-D videoconferencing is finally within the reach of the Fortune 1000. For $58,500 and a few ISDN lines, remote presenters can be “teleported” to speak in front of your group without having to equip viewers with VR goggles or other hardware.
P.J. Connolly ([email protected]) is a senior analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center.
Prices listed are in US currency.