Being There: The Case for Telepresence
Institutions moving from videoconferencing to telepresence are finding that the implementation can be as high-end or modest as they need.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
UNTIL THE ‘STAR TREK’ transporter is broadly available, higher ed will have to settle for telepresence, a combination of real-time video, audio, and interactive technologies that gives people in distributed locations a collaborative experience that’s as close to being in the same room as current technology allows. And these days that’s not so bad. In a culture that’s still adjusting to iPhone-size screen displays and choppy cell connections, it’s a marvel to hold meaningful conversations with people who appear life-size and talk without speakerphone echo—but happen to be located somewhere else in the world.
As Duke University (NC), the University of Texas at El Paso, and the Los Angeles
Community College District (CA) demonstrate, telepresence systems can reduce travel
while still helping people on campus forge and maintain relationships with their long-distance colleagues and contacts. But telepresence—even a modest installation—comes at a cost, and each of these institutions had to make a business case for investing in the kind of equipment, network infrastructure, and construction that the technology requires.
Duke University’s telepresence project first surfaced as a need in September 2008, when the university announced an ambitious plan to expand the activities of its Fuqua School of Business beyond its Durham home base to new campuses in economic centers around the world: New Delhi; St. Petersburg, Russia; Dubai; London; and Shanghai.
Duke introduced two international MBA programs, one for global executives with a minimum of 10 years of experience and another for people with three to nine years’ work experience. Both programs include resident sessions in each location as well as internetenabled distance learning. Tuition runs about $141,000 for the executive program and $120,000 for the other.
At that price tag, Duke’s leaders realized that students were going to have pretty high expectations for their educational experiences. They realized that they needed to go beyond the capabilities (or limitations) of videoconferencing technologies. As Tracy Futhey, CIO and VP of information technology, explains, “For us the need and desire for our business school, in particular, was to create this immersive experience that was independent of physical location. And that was not an experience that we felt traditional videoconferencing could serve.”
What makes telepresence work, Futhey believes, is that participants feel as if they’re sitting across the table from one another. “They’re life-size. The sound comes fromthe right location. The dynamic of the room really makes you feel as if you’re there. You can make eye contact,” she says. “Those are important aspects of the telepresence environment.”
But Duke recognized that the use of telepresence would not solely benefit students at overseas locations, she adds. “Telepresence seemed to be a powerful way that we’d be able to not only project activities here in Durham to students all over the world, but also benefit from the programs located in these other [geographical areas] and bring those back to the campus and to the students who remained in Durham,” Futhey says.
The CIO was introduced to Cisco’s offerings about three years ago, when she participated in a group working with the vendor on a networking project. “Cisco invited us into its site to see the [telepresence] facility. It was really, truly an immersive and compelling service,” she says.
Within the last year, Duke set up some small telepresence facilities with Cisco equipment—three spaces that can accommodate a couple of people in each room and two that can accommodate a single person.
Telepresence vendor: Cisco Systems
Visuals: Three 103-inch plasma displays
Room bandwidth: 18 Mbps
Price tag: Declined comment
Basic business case: Connecting students internationally in a high-end business program
Primary users: MBA faculty and students participating in global lectures
But the latest room is a big step up from those pilots. A 100-person lecture hall, it sports three 103-inch plasma displays, six 1,080-pixel cameras for panoramic and life-size immersive video experiences, an instructor’s podium with two document cameras for sharing class materials, three displays for the instructor to view students in remote classrooms from the podium, and 66 custom push-totalk microphones. If a student in the back of the stadium-style room asks a question, a camera will zoom in automatically to display that person on the screen.
Telepresence done right requires an above-average data communications pipeline to minimize videoand audiofeed latency and emulate the kind of quick back-and-forth that characterizes in-person interactions. Duke is part of National LambdaRail, a nonprofit consortium of research institutions, government entities, and private industry that owns and operates an ultra-highperformancenetwork infrastructure delivering up to 10-gigabit Ethernet service. But, says Futhey, that’s far more than what telepresence requires. The technical spec from Cisco identifies requisite bandwidth as 6 megabits per second (Mbps) per screen, or roughly 18 Mbps for a three-screen telepresence session. That’s about what the launch event for the room consumed, she notes.
Blair Sheppard, dean of the business school, unveiled the new lecture hall in early February by leading a CEO “master class.” Students held an interactive conversation with Cisco head John Chambers and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner John Doerr, who joined the students from Cisco headquarters in San Jose, California. Tony O’Driscoll, a Fuqua professor, also participated from New Delhi.
Although Futhey declines to divulge the investment made by the university in its newest telepresence room, media reports have quoted pricing of $340,000 per endpoint for Cisco’s TelePresence 3200, which is designed for meetings with up to 18 participants and includes displays, cameras, codecs, sound equipment, microphones, and furnishings. Duke’s setup is a definite grade above that.
But whatever the cost, Futhey expects healthy payback on telepresence at the institution. The university recently sent a contingent of leaders to Kunshan in China, where it’s just broken ground with the municipal government on a new 200-acre campus. Referring to that endeavor, she observes, “As real as telepresence is, I would rather physically sit down for dinner with a person the first time I meet them. But after the first couple of meetings have occurred, there’s certainly a lot of savings in travel and cost that can be achieved through using these kinds of facilities.”
Furthermore, Futhey points out, standard videoconferencing just wouldn’t deliver the kinds of experiences those MBA students are seeking in their education. “One of the challenges I’ve had with videoconferencing is that people feel they’re sort of separated from the other participants. You’ll often see people looking at their [computer] screens, doing e-mail, doing things that feel disconnected. The experience with telepresence has created a much greater sense of connection with people on the screen— as much as with people physically present in the room.”
A Tier 1 Makeover
Software Systems Specialist Pedro Espinoza prefers the more modest term “videoconferencing” over “telepresence.” But the latter is what he’s trying to achieve with Links, a special room set up to connect people at the University of Texas at El Paso with other parts of the world.
The room seats about 30 people, and even before its telepresence upgrade, it was used frequently—twice a week for videoconferenced University of Texas system meetings. “Every now and then we’d get a professor who would request the room to meet with a class. So it was used constantly—not heavily.” Espinoza describes the videoconferencing room’s limitations: “We had a huge screen where a projector would display the videoconference. But when you have a projected image that’s at a distance, the image tends to be a little dimmer.” Another problem: When people in the room stood up, their heads would block the picture seen by off-site participants. “The equipment had been installed 10 years prior,” he says. “It needed to be updated.”
The university also had a compelling business reason for the update: UTEP is seeking to upgrade its status to a Tier 1 university, which would put it in the top ranks of universities and qualify it for a major boost in research funding. “In preparation for that, we wanted to give this room Tier 1 status also,” Espinoza explains. “With that frame of mind, we wanted to do more than upgrade it—we wanted to future-proof it. We wanted a room that would last a long time and that would have cutting-edge technology.”
The ah-ha moment for Espinoza came in 2008 when he attended InfoComm, the annual conference and trade show for audiovisual professionals, and walked through the telepresence section. “I did a double take,” he recalls. The telepresence systems on display “looked very real— almost as if users were talking to a real person on the other end. I said, ‘This is what we need for our room.’”
But expense was a consideration. Determined not to spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars on our room,” he put together a plan to replicate that experience for participants while keeping the cost down.
The first research project was to decide on a codec, the device used to encode or compress and decode or decompress the video and audio streams for transit over the internet. The university had been using a videoconferencing codec from Tandberg, which, as a known entity, had its advantages. So Espinoza recommended upgrading to a new version of that, the high-definition C90. (At the time of this writing, Cisco was in the process of acquiring Tandberg to integrate the Norwegian company’s products with its own telepresence line.)
Next came the displays. Here, Espinoza wanted a projector with better lumens or brightness. The room had an alcove, so he came up with the idea of reorienting the setup to make use of that alcove space and accommodate rear projection. That had two advantages: 1) It would eliminate the problem of heads popping up during the broadcast as people moved in front of the projectors, and 2) Espinoza could get the size of screen he wanted for far less than a comparable size in LCD format. The room uses two Draper RPX systems with 91-inch projection screens.
MEASURE YOUR CARBON EMISSIONS SAVINGS
ALTHOUGH NONE OF THE INSTITUTIONS interviewed for this article could point to
actual savings in travel-related costs or a reduction of carbon emissions,all believe
those savings will come.For those campuses considering a telepresence approach to
videoconferencing,Cisco has made a tool available to help evaluate your own situation.
The Cisco TelePresence Calculator (telepresencecalculator.com) answers two questions:
How much greenhouse gas can Cisco TelePresence help you avoid?
How long does it take for Cisco TelePresence to pay for itself?
Users plug in the size of their organization and the number of locations to
be connected at the same time,the amount of time each telepresence sys-
tem will be used per day,and the percentage of employees who will have
For example,in a college with 300 employees,six global locations that each
use the system an hour a day,and with 10 percent of staff not having to travel
due to the telepresence implementation,Cisco projects that the college would
need to buy 14 telepresence units of various capacities and would save
3,496 metric tons of carbon dioxide over ﬁve years and $1.22 million in trav-
el costs.The deployment would have a return on investment of 43 months.
Pedro Espinoza,software system specialist at the University of Texas at El Paso,
tried the Cisco calculator,and he says that even though it’s a good starting place for
understanding the carbon and cost reductions possible with a telepresence operation,
“it doesn’t tell the whole story.”These technologies,he points out,have “opened up
opportunities that would not exist otherwise,”including developing an ongoing relation-
ship with colleagues in Australia.“We could never afford to send 10-15 people to a
meeting in Melbourne [on a regular basis],”he points out.“There is no way really to
calculate that impact and those numbers.”
Additionally, the room employs
Revolabs Fusion 8 wireless microphones, a quad-core Apple Mac Pro for presentations, an NTI VEEMUX DVI switcher to move among sources that will be displayed, a Sony Bravia 46-inch high-definition TV for auxiliary display, a WolfVision VZ-8 Plus document camera, and a Sony Blu-ray disc player.
To accommodate bandwidth needs, UTEP taps into the Internet2 advanced IP network, which can deliver up to 10gigabit Ethernet performance.
Modular furniture can be moved into different configurations depending on what participants want. But to simulate that telepresence experience, Espinoza recommends to users that they place the end of a table up against one of the big screens, to give the impression that individuals on the screen are right there in the room. “You’re sitting down at your table and the person sitting down at the other end looks the same size,” he explains. “It looks as if you’re sitting across from somebody.”
Espinoza estimates that all of the equipment and construction came in at about $90,000, “which is low compared to other systems,” he insists, pointing out that high-end systems start “at $250,000 and it can go to a million because they gut your room and install the equipment. There’s a lot of overhead.”
The kickoff for the new space took place in August 2009, when university leaders met with their peers at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. “We had been working on our relationship with that university,” explains Espinoza. “I believe that Links has helped advance that relationship. It seems almost like they’re here.”
The university’s connections to institutions in Mexico also have improved. According to Espinoza, because many members of the faculty in El Paso speak Spanish, there’s no language barrier preventing them from delivering lectures to students in Mexico through the telepresence facility.
“Because we connect to a lot of UT components and a lot of universities all over the place, we get to see what [facilities] they have,” he notes. “We’ve gotten a lot of comments: ‘Wow! I like your room! What do you guys have?’ They’re able to see the room and see our capabilities. That tells us that we did something right.”
That something right includes lowering the university’s carbon footprint. As the Links project website states: “Our goal: Be greener, reduce our travel, reduce our associated costs, and yet be the leader in communications and outreach worldwide.”
Bypassing LA Freeways
Traveling among the nine campuses of the Los Angeles Community College District, which covers 900 square miles, may not be as significant a journey as getting from Durham to China or across the state of Texas, but it can feel equally taxing. “If you go across the district itself, you’re talking 50 or 60 miles—but in LA traffic,” says Tom Hall, director of the district’s facilities planning and development. “From one end to the other it could be as much as three hours. If there’s one accident on the freeway as you travel, multiply [the travel time] by two. That’s half a day for a meeting that might last an hour.”
University of Texas at El Paso
Telepresence vendor: Tandberg
Visuals: Two 91-inch projection screens
Room bandwidth: Up to 768 kbps
Price tag: $90,000,including construction
Basic business case: Putting a Tier 1 face on the
Primary users: Administrators participating in weekly University of Texas system meetings
Hall, who’s involved in one of the largest sustainable building programs in the country for the district, says that telepresence just makes “perfect sense” for the sake of sustainability. “It was something that we decided we needed to put in at all colleges and district offices, so we could have a communication system without people having to drive.”
In 2008 the district set up a room for videoconferencing at each site. A request for proposals drew responses from several companies, two of which proposed using equipment from LifeSize, which the district included in its evaluation process. “There were some [systems] where you looked like you were in ‘Star Trek’ and they beamed you in,” Hall recalls. “But LifeSize, while not a Cadillac, is not the low end either.”
With the help of Pasadena-based systems integrator Vizual Symphony, the district has implemented 23 LifeSize systems at its nine campuses, two satellite locations, and its administrative offices. According to the minutes of the district’s Board of Trustees, the total cost of project was expected to be about $560,000. That’s about $25,000 for each
room, not including construction costs.
The installation includes LifeSize’s Room and Express products, management software, a 24-port multipoint bridge to enable up to 24 sites to participate in a conference, and a gateway to connect systems running on ISDN to systems running on IP.
Los Angeles Community College District
Telepresence vendor: LifeSize
Visuals: 40- to 50-inch high-deﬁnition LCD or plasma monitors
Room bandwidth: 768 kbps
Price tag: $25,000 per room,not including construction
Basic business case: Reducing meeting drive time
in LA trafﬁc
Primary users: Community college staff
Other equipment in the telepresence rooms usually includes a 40to 50-inch HD LCD or plasma monitor, HD document cameras, and a data connection that can be as low as 768 kilobits per second. (The LifeSize resolution resets depending on bandwidth.) To give the feel of being in the same office, the district has outfitted each space with the same color of paint and carpeting and similar furniture. Hall points out that simply having that separate space for the meetings helps out, because “you don’t feel like you’re being distracted by other people in the office.”
Adoption of the system hasn’t been seamless. “In the beginning, we didn’t have special training,” he says. “We’d get people in a room and they’d start pushing buttons. They wouldn’t know what to do.” So the district set out to train experts at each location who can sit in and assist when the need arises. In addition, users at first would forget that, along with the audio connection, their faces were also on display.
Overall, reports Hall, “It’s not as good as having the meeting in person to get the interaction. But it’s better than a telephone. The number of people who travel can be greatly reduced, which means that many more cars off the road.”