Telecommuters lack advanced videoconferencing - for now

Technology improvements and cheaper bandwidth will help – eventually

For telecommuters to participate on par with others located in telepresence studios, the cost of bandwidth to their home offices will have to decrease and the quality of service will have to increase, Ono says. Network quality is key to delivering real-time voice and video that are essential, he says.

Bandwidth is limited over home DSL and cable modem services and is subject to uncontrollable delays on the Internet, says Claire Schooley, an analyst with Forrester Research.

The quality of low-cost video gear also will have to improve, says Ono, particularly the codecs that encode video. The better the compression the better the image quality using the same amount of bandwidth, he says.

Today, video images that can be patched in from telecommuter sites appear as separate windows on one of the screens in a telepresence studio. The image size is smaller and grainier, and the motion in it is jerkier than produced by the more expensive equipment.

On the telecommuter side of the connection, the lack of a high-definition screen -- most home offices have at best 17-inch monitors -- makes the images received smaller and less sharp than those on an HD wide screen, says Schooley.

With only Web conferencing gear, the illusion of being present is gone, says Ono. Cameras for telepresence systems, which generate higher quality images, are placed so that when a participant looks toward the image of another participant, it seems to the other particpant as if the other person is looking directly at him. That is not the case with a Webcam and a PC screen. The Web cam is typically located on top of the monitor, so the person being photographed appears to be looking just below the camera. When he looks from person to person on the screen, only his eyes move, so there is no sense of directly addressing a participant at the other end. "The body language cues are way off," he says.

This shortcoming points up the value of in-person meetings, says Schooley. If success of a meeting depends on the intangibles of a face-to-face get-together, perhaps the actual trip is warranted. It is not clear that telepresence yields the same business benefits as being there, shaking hands, having a meal together and absorbing nonverbal cues, she says.

She says the telepresence technology is still desirable when users want to use body-language cues as part of their evaluation of those at the other end of a link and for whatever reason, travel is not feasible. "Telepresence can be very valuable when it's important that you see every bead of sweat" she says.

Bringing that capability to telecommuters will require development of codecs; infrastructure to support inexpensive bandwidth with QoS; and less costly high-definition, widescreen displays, says Ono, and that will take time. "It's getting there, the quality is better. It won't be 10 years -- sooner than that," he says.

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Tim Greene

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