Thoughts on Cisco, Telepresence, and Reciprocity

While meeting for drinks and food at Llywelyn’s Pub a few weeks ago on a Sunday evening with two of my oldest friends, one of them mentioned recently using Cisco’s Telepresence video conferencing. I was keen to learn about the experience. Rocky said the experience was really immersive and described in vivid detail the sense of sitting around an oval table with video feeding into displays that curve with the shape of the table to present participants at distant locations.

My first question was whether the configuration provided a reciprocity display to reflect back to each location how local participants are seen by others at different places. He said that it didn’t. I said it didn’t surprise me at all, given the name of the service — telepresence. It really is a pretentious name if you stop and think about it. After all, presence is roughly the sense one gets from being in an environment, and telepresence is the extent to which one feels present in a mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment.

I consider myself an early adopter of communication tools that provide unique opportunities to engage other people. At the same time, I recognize the fact that face-to-face communication adds interpersonal depth, and not just bandwidth, to relationships that is either missing in asynchronous communication (whether user-generated or marketing -driven), or takes much longer to develop.

I did my first video conference in the late 1980s while working for an independent telephone company, Contel, in designing the user interface, system documentation, and user manuals for the corporation’s records management system. Contel was an early experimenter in interactive video networks, so videoconference was an option in the collaboration process with the corporate subject matter experts.

At the time, I worked for a regional operating company in the telephone division’s billing center. My role in that project was to provide user-centered design and documentation support for a corporate records management application. I remember distinctly wondering about how we appeared to those at the remote location, a capability I later discovered was called a reciprocity view. A few years later, after GTE (now Verizon) and Contel merged, and with my doctorate in hand, I revisited those implicit questions while doing research for the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri — St. Louis, on interactive video networks connecting classes in high schools and universities in the University of Missouri System. The systems used frame relay telecommunications, ancient in current telecommunications networking, to connect up to four locations at a time in a virtual class.

What I remember distinctly about those networks though is the design thought given to the way people at distant locations were visually connected, however primitive the broadband capabilities now seem. All the locations provided multiple views of the class to the teachers, who physically visited all the locations at least once during the class. All the locations provided reciprocity monitors so that anyone hosting a class from that location knew how people at distant locations saw them or their content, or whether they in fact did see them or their content. Regardless of the touted reliability of current video networking, these concerns for reciprocity are still relevant.

It really seems strange that a design for video networking, such as the Cisco Telepresence service, would not include reciprocal view of the experience as a default resource for participants. A reciprocal view of any synchronic virtual situation is advantageous for all involved. So where is the telepresence other than the illusion of a curved table with a curved panel of displays?

Am I missing something? Is the configuration my friend reported an exception?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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6 Responses to Thoughts on Cisco, Telepresence, and Reciprocity

  1. Ghost says:

    I work for one of the current big telepresence players. I will attempt to explain the reasoning behind no reciprocity in the larger telepresence systems.

    If you take a traditional endpoint (all manufacturers are now all calling them “telepresence”) – most of them support multiple monitors, or an emulated dual view on a single monitor. This typically provides the local view you are referring to.

    Now compare this to the larger “fixed configuration” of Cisco’s Telepresence, HP Halo, Polycom’s immersive telepresence. In all those configurations you are given fixed reference points – the table, the chairs, positioning of everything in the rooms. With these fixed reference points you should have enough self awareness to know things like “I’m slouching in my chair” (and that will look bad on the other side of the conference). Most of the elements in the room have the exact same common element on the other side – this is your reciprocity.

    In your traditional conference room, where you’ve placed a VC unit on the wall (or some appropriate place), you will be calling a room different than the one you are in. This breaks the reference points contained in the telepresence suites – which is why those smaller systems give you the reciprocity.

    I hope this helps your understanding.

  2. Larry Irons says:

    The “fixed reference points” don’t change the fact that it is a virtual room all participants are engaging one another through. From what I can tell from Cisco’s web site there are certainly configurations sold that don’t do what you suggest. The 3200 is one example.

  3. James Macanufo says:

    I’ve had a chance to play around in Halo, Cisco and Tandberg telepresence, and use Skype video all the time. As a design point, I think reciprocity is needed in Skype (where Im adjusting the camera, fiddling with the tech, etc) but would be a drawback and distraction in telepresence. Telepresence is about full immersion: it doesnt take long for the brain to get over the novelty, suspend belief and for all practical purposes believe you are in the same room with the other location. Reciprocity would fight against this convincing illusion.

    That’s not to say that the design couldnt be improved. Most telepresence rooms hardcode the typical meeting format: we’re going to get around a table and talk. Where is the whiteboard? How do we do post-up? Presentation is one thing, but co- creation and collaboration is harder. Would like to see this challenge addressed in next generation.

  4. Larry Irons says:

    Hi James,

    These are very refined distinctions. I appreciate the feedback. I would agree with you about telepresence and full immersion, as long as the number of screens available in a “telepresence” meeting equals the number of sites involved in the meeting. Many configurations, I suspect, involve more distant sites than available screens. In that case, the “illusion” disappears and switching rooms in views negates the point you make about immersion, and the need for a reciprocity view still stands, IMHO. In my mind, this is more a point about the vendors’ failing to explicitly, and in their marketing literature, recognize the limitations of certain configurations of their technology as opposed to others. And, if purchasers of those configurations choose to ignore a recommendation for reciprocity from the vendor then so be it. However, I really wonder whether vendors even recognize, much less explictly discuss, those limitations with clients.

  5. Larry Irons says:


    One more point, and as I stated initially. The default point of presence in such systems, at least from a design point, needs to ensure reciprocity. Illusion seldom works in a consistent manner if it is not done on a stage. It is misleading, if not disingenuous, for vendors to sell telepresence systems “as if” they are stages for the illusion of copresence when in fact they are stages involving mutliple configurations that users can buy. These are very well known distinctions in the research on computer mediated communication.

  6. bt verstility…

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