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Weekly Column

The Next Killer App: Telepresence may come to your house next year.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (81)
By Robert X. Cringely

Any successful information technology requires a killer app — an application so compelling that it can, all by itself, justify the purchase of a given device. When it comes to personal computers, there have been many killer apps, starting with the spreadsheet, but there haven’t been any new ones in a long time, which is a problem. This column is about a potential new killer app for the PC platform, perhaps its last one. What do you know about telepresence?

I have for the last several months been shooting for Maryland Public Television a new PBS documentary about how information technology has transformed our lives and businesses. It is an esoteric and very close look at a few technologies. Some, like the rise of office automation and the personal computer, are obvious: secretaries and telephone operators have disappeared while all the rest of us learned to type. Others, like RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips, are harder to see but just as transforming by creating a real-time distribution system in which we can know where everything is moving all the time, taking just-in-time inventory from a goal to a reality. One of the most striking of these technologies, which has yet to achieve wide use, is telepresence — high-definition video conferencing as a substitute for business travel. Telepresence is not far from being here on a wide scale and the effects — even beyond business — should be profound. I see telepresence shortly invading our homes.

The way vendors tend to implement telepresence today is fairly uniform if inconsistently interoperable. A special conference room is built that is actually half a conference room, half of a table set against a wall that is all video screens. Typically three big projection or LCD displays are side by side in landscape mode with a third landscape screen mounted higher on the wall above the middle lower screen. The three lower screens are used to show the remote participants in the meeting. Sometimes all three screens are devoted to participants at a single location, but up to four locations can be linked if needed. The top screen is used for meeting materials like PowerPoint presentations or videos intended to be seen by all the participants.

A couple weeks ago I used a system of this type (in this case it was from Hewlett-Packard but there are similar systems from Cisco and other vendors) to interview the people who designed it. I was in Palo Alto and they were in Corvallis, Oregon. In addition to the telepresence system (called Halo, whatever that means) I had a camera crew at both ends to record the action in each room.

These rooms are not cheap to build or run. The HP systems cost either $249,000 or $349,000 to build, depending on the model, and $18,000 per month to operate. This gets you a DS3 connection (45 megabits per second) to a low-latency global network and 24/7 support. Each of the lower screens uses six megabits per second, with the remaining 27 megabits per second for that fourth upper screen. If this seems like bandwidth overkill for PowerPoint, understand that this HP system was co-developed with the Dreamworks movie studio specifically to allow dispersed groups of executives to review 1080p HD footage from upcoming films and for dispersed editors to actually work together to edit films without having to be in the same city. With feature film production budgets now averaging $50 million, $18,000 per month for editing support is nothing. With just over 100 such rooms now in operation for HP, part of the high price is also simply investment recovery. If HP were selling 10,000 of these rooms per month the price would be substantially lower.

Video conferencing has been around for a couple decades, but telepresence is different from that. You can see the entire other side of the conference table, for example, and the people who are sitting across from you appear to be life sized. They can see you and you can see them. When another person speaks to you they can look you in the eye. Body language and emotions are easy to detect and the sound of each participant seems to come from his or her direction. You can watch the people who aren’t talking to see if they are even paying attention. It really is tele-PRESENCE and the fact that you are looking in a video screen is forgotten after a minute or two.

Here are some lessons I learned from the experience. For one thing, size really does matter. The big screens changed for me the entire experience, though I think a home telepresence system could do fine with a single big HD screen instead of three. Eye contact is important, too, and that is generally accomplished through two techniques — mounting the camera as far as possible from the subject then using some subtle video morphing software to make it seem as though the camera was actually mounted behind the screen. For a home system I believe most of this effect could be achieved by simply increasing the distance from subject to camera, reducing the angle at which the camera is seen above the screen. This is the major failing in video chat systems where the camera is mounted on the display.

Using the system I quickly came to understand that the real power wasn’t in bringing together groups of big shots for huge powwows at which sweeping global decisions would be made. The quintessential telepresence meeting lasts 10 minutes and involves a group of people at any level who simply need to come to a concensus. Nobody flies 10,000 miles for a 10 minute meeting yet everybody walks down the hall for one. Being able to hold such a meeting is what can make a widely distributed group of workers function like people in the same building, which has been one of the nagging problems of global development and outsourcing. The fact that it already has eight rooms up and running in India may give HP some advantage in that respect.

We’re early in this process, but I think telepresece is going to be a big deal. It comes down to a big, high-resolution screen, good sound, mounting the camera far enough away to simulate eye contact, and of course throwing lots of bandwidth at the problem. Some of these components, like relatively cheap high-def big screens, are here today. The processing power required is here, too. The only significant obstacle to us having our own telepresence systems is bandwidth, and we can predict with some accuracy when we’ll have that.

This bandwidth calculation involves applying some variation of Moore’s Law in two dimensions. Available bandwidth at a reasonable price is always increasing over time. The second dimension involves changes in compression technology and increases in processor power that over time reduce the amount of bandwidth that will be required to carry a high-res video signal. With the passage of time, then, available bandwidth increases while, at the same time, bandwidth requirements decrease. This has the effect of amplifying Moore’s Law, accelerating that point at which telepresence at a reasonable cost is possible.

So when will it happen? When will we have telepresence capability in our homes? Some of us are there already and don’t even know it, the only remaining problem being one of integration.

The home embodiment of that HP Halo system would be a single big screen, which using even the current HP technology would require six megabits-per-second. Millions of Internet users in Asia and Europe already have that kind of upstream bandwidth and hundreds of thousands of U.S. residential customers (mainly Verizon FiOS users) do too.

But HP’s Halo system is old-tech, using MPEG-2 compression that is more than a decade old. A home system built around a more powerful codec like H.264 and using more powerful hardware could reduce the required bandwidth for home telepresence by at least half, making the likely barrier three megabits-per-second. That kind of bandwidth is nothing to users in Korea or Japan and it is nothing, too, for fiber-to-the-home users in the U.S. (mainly Verizon) and wouldn’t be that much of a stretch, either, for fiber-to-the-curb vendors like AT&T. Giving two megabits upstream to every cable modem user wouldn’t be trivial, but it is possible and could be — I think WILL BE — spurred by competitive pressures from DSL.

So the bandwidth is coming and millions of people will have it, even in America, by 2008. What’s missing is both consumer demand and painless satisfaction of that demand through easy-to-use high-volume products, which come down to big screens, cameras, and PC systems running the right software. The part of this that is both hardest and easiest is stimulating demand. People aren’t demanding telepresence because they have never experienced telepresence. If you show them they will come.

This is 100 percent analogous to the introduction of color TV in the 1950s. People didn’t know they wanted color TV until they saw color TV. But once they saw it, the lure of color TV was instant and obvious. What was difficult with color TV was that it required a large and very expensive video production and distribution infrastructure that cost tens of billions of dollars and required major financial commitments from vendors like RCA, which had to build transmitters, receivers, cameras, an entire TV network (NBC) and even subsidize the production of color programs like Bonanza to seed the system. Home telepresence requires almost none of that and, in fact, actually leverages the huge investment already made in HDTV, since that’s what those big telepresence screens will no doubt be used for when nobody wants to visit with Grandma or play video strip poker.

All that’s required to sell consumers on home or small business telepresence, then, is allowing them to experience it. And, of course, making it affordable.

I think Apple will be the first PC-only vendor to embrace the telepresence business. Steve Jobs would like another killer app. His last attempt at creating one — video editing — was only somewhat successful. The iPod of course qualifies for killer app status, but I don’t think it has actually sold many computers, though lots of iPods.

Apple had big screen TVs ready to introduce a year and a half ago but cancelled them at the last moment as too mundane. You could buy an HDTV from HP or Dell and Apple apparently didn’t have that much more to offer.

But this time it will be different. Imagine one of the new aluminum and glass iMacs only instead of a 24-inch screen make it 42 inches. The familiar iSight camera will be there in the bezel. but this time the camera will have HD resolution. This hang-it-on-the-wall iMac would establish yet another category of computers, which is what Apple loves to do. They’ll sell a million units to the faithful and all it will take is putting an active telepresence system in every Apple store connected to every other Apple store for prospective users to play with. This gets Apple into the big screen TV business with a system that has higher margins simply because it isn’t just a TV but is also a Mac. Look for all this after Christmas along with refreshed Macs featuring the H.264 encoder chip I pre-announced a number of months ago. Look for Apple to also facilitate telepresence by turning it into a service as it has more and more wanted to do. Then imagine that system connected to a 3G iPhone.

For Apple the point is to create a platform to allow more natural implementation of “lean back” content. Apple TV was the first push in this direction, but this telepresence system will be both easier to use and more expensive, two attributes near to Steve Jobs’s heart.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (81)

I would like to try to add another perspective here. Bob may have overstated somewhat when he wrote that it would be the next "killer app". However, that doesn't mean that this technology won't greatly increase in revenues.

Why do technology columns/chats so often erode into arguments about whether something will be the killer app or a total failure. I thought we were coming to this alternative form of media to get some real perspective, not the fluff false dichotomies that are always regurgitated for us on TV.

I see global warming as a major driving force for telepresence. I just don't see the high-end stuff being used to the same extent that Bob does. Anything that is reasonable in price and technically feasible that can reduce carbon footprint might work.

Oh, and for the people who wrote "well, teleconferencing was tested in the 1970s and.."
Who cares?! I don't think women will be quite as intimidated by a video camera in this generation that is literally growing up with technology from the day they are born. (Think heart monitors during labour). People are more used to technology all around. Young women who were once afraid of it are exponentially less so today.


Shplad | Sep 09, 2007 | 11:02AM

Lots of us work in our underwear when using the computer. We use the phone or a chat program to collaborate cheaply. With telepresence, I need to allocate part of my house to be presentable and I need to be sure to put on pants. Maybe I can get some real-time CGI to paint in some pants and a haircut for me. May as well turn my grey hairs black and trim my mustache.

People with disabling conditions and disfigured faces now have a equal chance on the net. Now they'll have to hire actors to play them on 'TV', coached from offscreen through an earpiece.

Virtual cosmetics, anyone?

Fred | Sep 10, 2007 | 2:07AM

I am currently managing a project at work. We are only 6 weeks into this and today I had to interview a firm who is bidding for our work. I am going out of town in the next couple of days and the other firm will not be able to meet until the day that I travel. This is unfortunate, as I prefer to interview these companies in person rather than over the phone. Since there is no other choice, I will have to participate via conference call. But there is nothing like talking to folks face to face, where you can pick up on a lot more, than over the phone. I know that our company would greatly benefit from this technology, especially since we are reducing costs wherever we can, and currently travel expenses are sky-high.

Adriana | Sep 10, 2007 | 8:36PM