Jargon is a wonderful thing, a kind of technological shorthand that can save time when everyone knows what you're talking about already, but baffling and, often, a real turn off to those that don't. Take "telepresence", a term you'll find bandied about in communiqués of all kinds from those involved in video conferencing. But what exactly does it mean, and what's all the fuss about?

One trap to avoid is thinking that it's just a longer, slightly jazzed up way of saying "presence". It's not, and here's why.

By presence we mean being able to let others know where, roughly speaking, you are at any one time and, assuming you're open to the idea, the best means of communicating with you. For example, if you're an employee in a large company the corporate directory might show your presence as in the office and logged onto the company PABX ready to accept calls. Equally it could show you as, in a meeting and only accessible via email or out and about, with your mobile phone the preferred way of getting in touch. 

Similarly would-be Skype callers can see when you're logged on and able to accept calls, while in Facebook you can see which of your friends are open to a quick online chat.

Telepresence has nothing at all to do with that. Rather it's used to describe video conferencing technology that fools you into thinking that the people you're communicating with are somehow actually there with you in the room. That they're not on the other side of the world sat in front of a camera, and that you could, if you wanted, reach out and shake their hand.

This is put into practice in a number of ways, one of the simplest being the use of big screens.

As anyone who's bought a flat screen TV recently will confirm, size really matters here. Project a video image onto a standard computer display and it's hard to see it as anything more than that - a video on a  computer screen that you can look at, or not, as you want. Scale it up to full size on a video wall, however, and it compels becomes "immersive", compelling you to pay attention.

Make it HD, add other participants and switch the cameras around to follow the cut and thrust of the argument and you really start to get involved with what's going on, just as you would if you were there.  You become "telepresent".

The downside, of course, is the need for those big screens plus multiple HD cameras, possibly, capable of tracking movement automatically. Not to mention  plus all the supporting network and management infrastructure required to connect everything together and make it work. It's all pretty pricey and, as result, mostly bought into by large enterprises able to afford it. And that's a fairly limited market, so the development thrust at the moment is to find ways of making telepresence, and video conferencing in general, more accessible to a wider audience.

One solution is to offer video conferencing as a managed service, with an increasing number of companies now offering just that. Another is to use technology to help and here too, there's a lot going on with the big Unified Communications vendors all looking to integrate telepresence features into their product sets.

The proliferation of mobile video is really helping, with users rapidly becoming accustomed to communicating via video on their smartphones, tablets and other devices. A development which hasn't gone unnoticed by companies such as Cisco and Avaya, both of which have launched handheld video tablet devices rather than tying users to their desktops or video conferencing suites.

Other developments likely to have an impact include the use of 3D video technology which, on the back of experience gained from the use of 3D to enhance movies, TV, and gaming consoles could soon become a common part of the business video experience.

Plus there's one more that I'd like to throw into the ring, and that's the use of "augmented reality" or AR. Yet more jargon unfortunately, this time to describe the selective mixing of video images to make it look on screen as though the participants are interacting with other people, things and places that aren't really there.

Still in its infancy, AR is becoming popular in gaming and in the form of augmented reality apps for the iPhone and Android smartphones. Advertisers, too,  are staring to latch on to the idea. You may have seen the recent Lynx Excite campaign where passengers at Victoria station saw angels falling to earth beside them when prompted to look up at the big screen display. Or maybe not as it wasn't exactly convincing, but it did make the news and garner both attention and the kind of interaction that even the best telepresence technologies can't reproduce.

Hopefully the video developers will have taken note, and are busy working out how AR can be used in business systems.

I'm not taking any bets but I wouldn't be surprised if someday soon we'll be able to beam ourselves up to an augmented reality conference and really take part in the action.



This article is written by Alan Stevens and sponsored by Avaya. The opinions reflected in this piece are solely those of Alan Stevens and may not reflect those of Avaya management