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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