Teleflirtation: The latest hot way to hook up

Private instant messaging heats up video conferences

The realistic audio-visual atmosphere of telepresence combined with off-channel instant messaging is giving rise to a new social phenomenon dubbed teleflirtation.

When strangers of the opposite sex are given the chance to meet face-to-face on high-definition telepresence gear and messaging is also an option, they tend to write personal notes to participants at the other sites, says Charles Stucki, vice president and general manager for the TelePresence Solutions Business Unit at Cisco.

A main audible conversation goes on among the participants, but some give each other the eye and shift to text-based interaction, he says -- teleflirtation.

Recently Stucki checked in with officials at New York University who had installed Cisco telepresence gear on its campus and connected with another campus in the United Kingdom. Students were allowed to use the gear to meet with random groups at the other end to see what use they would make of the technology, he says.

The students exhibited other unexpected behavior. For instance, Cisco initially created telepresence rooms so their lighting, furniture and wall colors matched to enhance the illusion that participants were in the same room. It turns out that the students would rather know where their counterparts are located than pretend they are in the same place, he says.

When given a mirror, the participants would hold it up so the telepresence cameras would shoot images of something other than the conference tables they were pointed at -- the rest of the room, out a window and so on. They would also ask each other where they were located and what their names were.

After establishing these basic parameters, they would move on to performing a common task, Stucki says.

They also liked overlaying other information on the main telepresence feed, such as captions that summarized what was being said, as a way to make transfer of information more efficient, he says.

Experiments like the one at NYU and experiences of customers have altered some of the assumptions Cisco started out with when it first got into telepresence, he says. For example, one main idea was to project images of participants large enough that they seemed to be life size. That limited the number of participants to six or so.

But it turns out that the most used telepresence rooms are those that handle large groups, so Cisco is coming up with configurations to accommodate 18 and recommendations on how to make large meetings productive. "Figuring out how to make group dynamics work is super important," he says.

With vendors coming out with high-definition teleconferencing for individual users, it is possible for a person to join a telepresence session by himself, but that changes the dynamic as well, Stucki says. Some customers report that if participants in a group room know a lone participant is located in the same building, they ask that person to come over to the same room.

Other practical findings include the importance of keeping latency low so people don't talk over each other. It's also important to frame participants to show their upper bodies, not just their heads. Otherwise people on the other end can't read their body language, something that adds to the quality of a telepresence call, he says.

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