Telepresence: 7 Differences to Video Conferencing

By Jerusha Shah

Even if you’ve never heard of telepresence before, you’ve probably seen it.

Think of a scene out of a James Bond or Jack Ryan thriller when a group of military chiefs are meeting with a bunch of other military chiefs who are located in an office across the world, but it looks like they’re all in the same room, at the same desk and even sitting on the same chairs.

To put it simply, a telepresence system is the most technologically advanced video conferencing solution available today. It is set up on each remote site involved in a meeting or interaction, and includes the best video and audio equipment. Today, it might also include a robot or robots.

Telepresence is designed to make virtual meetings more immersive, collaborative and impactful by creating a shared environment that makes participants — whether they be business leaders or school students — feel as if they are in each other’s presence.

In reality, telepresence systems are more than just cameras and speakers. Instead they take a broader whole-of-environment approach that includes elements such as office lighting, design, furniture, fixtures and even robotics. These elements are all coordinated, and broadcast in HD, to create the feeling of truly being present and in-person at a desk for a virtual business meeting — like a pilot in a flight simulator.

Traditionally, it’s been used by governments, the military, emergency groups, and large corporations looking for a cutting edge video conferencing application with the best security available.

 

How is it used in the real world?

 

For example, when the Federal Government set up a National Cabinet (which included the Prime Minister and the leaders of all states and territories) in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, they didn’t start meeting over Zoom.

Instead, they used the National Telepresence System (NTS) — a secure, HD, digital video conferencing system which is designed to work on a closed network known as the Ministerial Communications Network. The NTS enables meetings up to the security classification of SECRET.

All state and territory governments, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Defence, and the Office of the Attorney-General are connected through this system, as are all Commonwealth Ministers and Departmental Secretaries.

There are 49 large NTS facilities across Australia and 171 personal Telepresence units installed in the offices of Ministers, Assistant Ministers, Departmental Secretaries and senior government officers. Some local government offices also utilise the technology.

Today, as more organisations, both big and small, local and international, realise the benefits of video conferencing, some are looking toward the future and how to take it a step further to improve their business communication and the way their people work.

 

So what is telepresence?

 

In its broadest and most technical sense, telepresence refers to a set of technologies that allow a human to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance of being present, or to have an effect by the use of a robot, for example, at a place other than their actual location.

In practice, telepresence can refer to a video conferencing system which aims to create the illusion that remote participants are in each other’s presence in the same room or office. At the other end of the technological spectrum, it can refer to what’s known as meet-up technology, which instead of just video and audio it transverses into robotics, for example, moving around or physically manipulating objects.

While different from virtual reality, telepresence requires that the participants’ senses be provided with relevant stimuli so as to give the feeling of actually being in that other location and experiencing the interaction between users.

In some cases, users may also have the ability to actually affect the remote location. When this happens things like the participants’ position, human movements, actions and voice may be sensed, transmitted and duplicated in the remote location to bring about this effect.

A telepresence robot, which, in its most basic sense, is a robot that includes a screen and is on wheels and can follow participants’ movements, is one telepresence tool that is increasingly being used in educational, health and legal environments.

Robotics has been used for social interactions with people under quarantine during the COVID-19 crisis, and its use is only expected to expand into the future.

When it comes to video conferencing, telepresence offers the highest possible level of quality and security available. It uses advanced technical sophistication and accuracy when it comes to both sight and sound compared with traditional video conferencing.

Improved technology and a greater requirement for mobile collaboration and interaction have also seen telepresence video conferencing move beyond the boardroom for use with hand-held mobile devices, enabling collaboration independent of location.

But before you go and book a telepresence video conference, it’s important to establish if you really need one, or if a traditional video conference will suffice.

Here are seven differences between telepresence and traditional video conferencing:

 

  1. Video and imaging

 

To put it simply, the video and imaging capabilities of telepresence systems not only put you in the picture, they put you at a desk in a room or even an office.

A telepresence tool allows you to emulate the appearance of an actual meeting space so you actually feel like you’re sitting with the person who is halfway across the world.

Instead of the traditional standard definition format, telepresence systems stream in high definition and 4K.

They let you see the finer details — whether it be the facial features and subtle body language of the other participants, or the ability to view highly detailed graphics or confidently compare colour tones.

Instead of a single standard definition camera at the end of a table which focuses on one speaker at a time and has people in the foreground and others further away, telepresence works on a 1:1 ratio, with a camera focused on each individual who is presented in the best definition on a designated screen.

HD and 4K displays can stretch across entire walls, and some accommodate multiple rows of participants in each location.

A telepresence system relies on more than just access to a top camera though, it’s effectiveness is also determined by:

  • The type of input source that’s used for content, for example a lo-res image versus a detailed graphic
  • The system and codec that is processing the video from the camera
  • The service or platform that is processing the call, for example, can your video conferencing provider support high definition or 4K
  • Display types, and how they’re used and positioned
  • Lighting and design
  • Camera positioning.

 

  1. Audio quality

 

No matter how good your video looks, without audio you have no video conference.

While most people will put up with a small glitch in their video — something you won’t have to bother about if you’re using a telepresence system — being able to hear what’s going on is non-negotiable.

It comes down to the choice of microphone and speakers and how they’re placed, acoustics, mixes and switchboard, production control and more, to ensure what is said, as well as what is heard, is shared at the highest required level of quality.

As the aim is to create the sense that everyone is in the same room, telepresence audio is clear and comprehensible, echo-free, and at an adequate and consistent volume.

It also features surround sound, also known as spatial audio, which brings cinema-like sound that surrounds you, and provides directional cues so that the sound feels as if it is actually coming from the direction of where the person who is speaking is situated.

 

  1. Cost

 

While the cost of video conferencing has been on the decrease now for some time, traditionally, telepresence tools and systems have been prohibitively expensive — both when it comes to purchasing the equipment you need, as well as operating it.

A stand-alone telepresence video conferencing system installed across remote locations could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and as a result its use has been limited to governments and large corporations.

However, today, video conferencing platforms such as Redback Connect, offer affordable telepresence video conferencing services at a fraction of that cost.

Hosted at our own professional webinar studios with broadcast-quality HD cameras, displays and audio equipment, as well as state-of-the-art production equipment and technical know-how, our telepresence video conferencing technology can make a sophisticated, secure meeting experience a reality.

Another thing to consider when you’re weighing up the costs of telepresence video conferencing is how much video conferencing can save you in other costs.

The Commonwealth, state and territory governments have saved an estimated $181 million over the last eleven years by using the NTS to reduce parliamentarians and public servants’ travel costs. This means more than 36,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions were not attributed to Australian governments over the same period, according to the Department of Finance.

 

  1. Compatibility

 

The key to an effective telepresence video conference is that everyone involved in a meeting, no matter where they’re located, feels if they are all situated in the same space.

But to create that feeling, everyone must be using the same telepresence system. Someone joining from home using their laptop with a built-in camera, speakers and microphone isn’t going to enjoy the same meeting as someone set up with the best equipment in the right environment.

You can communicate far better remotely using telepresence if everyone involved is equipped with the same telepresence hardware and software. If you’re not, everyone misses out.

For example, if you’re in a meeting room or studio equipped with a telepresence system, but your remote team members are using a traditional video conferencing technology, they will only see and hear you in the best video and audio that their devices offer — whether that be a hand-held device, a laptop, or an Ultra HD screen.

Correspondingly, despite the fact you’re using the best HD displays as part of your telepresence system, you’re likely to end up viewing inadequate video, no matter how good your screen is, because the quality will be based on the capabilities of the technology that your remote participants are using.

 

  1. User experience

 

When it comes to ease of use, not all video conferencing systems are equal.

Firstly, just trying to connect to some platforms can be laborious. Some require users to download software or an app, or create an account on a particular platform — for example, you need a Google Account to use Google Meet.

The range of features also differs from one system to another, although most video conferencing tools today offer basic capabilities including chat and messaging, screen sharing and recording.

However, the experience of using video conferencing tools varies depending on what system you’re using. The best user interfaces are intuitive and easy to use, while others can be cluttered and confusing.

Despite its technical sophistication, a telepresence system offers a more streamlined environment. A typical telepresence system has a simple dashboard and as a host, you can start a call or join one instantly.

As a result, meeting participants are more focused and engaged with each other.

 

  1. Location and Environment

 

Telepresence systems allow a more immersive encounter when it comes to an effective virtual connection.

This relies not only on the technology used, but also the environment and static factors that make up the meeting place or office.

For example, the table and chairs used in each location should be the same to create the feeling of everyone being in the same place.

The seating, lighting, acoustics, fixtures and atmosphere of the actual meeting or office should also be duplicated to achieve a telepresence look and feel.

 

  1. Connectivity

 

Let’s face it, sometimes technology is less than perfect. Despite your best laid plans, slow networks, unreliable internet connections and even family members streaming Netflix in HD can affect your video conferencing connection.

For most of us, the challenge when it comes to video conferencing usually relates to the issue of not being able to connect calls, or connections that produce poor quality video, and even worse, audio — that’s because they’re running over the public internet.

The best telepresence systems avoid this problem by running on secure, closed networks.

A live video stream over a closed network with in-built security encryption provides uninterrupted video and sound.

When it comes to security, the best video conferencing services use encryption and network security to protect data transmission during a call, and store all data that a client wants to be saved in special locked-down facilities.

Using a provider’s own locally-hosted servers also means you can take advantage of world-leading infrastructure, meaning you’re guaranteed the best service  for every person, every time.

 

Not all businesses have the same requirements when it comes to video conferencing and visual collaboration.

If you use video conferencing intensively, you rely on detailed visual content to communicate with customers, supplies and stakeholders, if your security and reliability guarantees are non-negotiable, or if you want to create a sophisticated, professional-looking event every time, a telepresence video conference is worth exploring.

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