In carriers' high-def future, pants are the real winners

As anybody who works from home knows, one of the great benefits of telecommuting is that pants are optional. Wear your pyjamas to that teleconference, or attend in your birthday suit if you prefer; nobody will be the wiser.

As anybody who works from home knows, one of the great benefits of telecommuting is that pants are optional. Wear your pyjamas to that teleconference, or attend in your birthday suit if you prefer; nobody will be the wiser.

Pundits including Cold Chisel and fictitious TV broadcaster Ron Burgundy have alluded to this point, given that desks normally cover the bottom half of said presenters.

The same, unfortunately, can't be said for office conferences, where clothing is most definitely not optional. Judging by the latest advancements in videoconferencing, this is not all bad; telepresence systems from Cisco, Nortel, and HP among other vendors are rapidly taking the humble budget meeting to a whole new level with eye-popping resolution and full-frontal video.

Using high-definition video technology, these suites shove live video down an IP connection to provide what is being billed as the next best thing to being there. The higher resolution, combined with some careful configuration, produces convincing life-sized images of the people you're talking to.

You could easily configure this technology to project standing attendees in full vertical size, like a TV weather presenter in front of a green screen. For now, early applications are typically desk-bound, however, it is possible to use a wall of big TVs to make it look like faraway people are sitting across the table from you.

Cisco TelePresence — It's All About The Experience

Nortel Telepresence commercial

This gear may be cool, but it's hardly going to change the world overnight — the ANZ Bank spent over AU$700,000 on telepresence gear to link its Australian developers and Indian development office (Telstra, BHP Billiton, and Regus are amongst the other early adopters).

Prices will come down, and given the diminutive HD video-cameras already on the market it's not impossible to imagine this stuff hitting the consumer market in, say, five years.

The real challenge with telepresence, however, is bandwidth — pushing lots of HD video over pipes that must be super-sized to accommodate it. Estimates about just how super-sized, vary considerably. Some estimates suggest around 5Mbps is enough, while a pair of telco sales reps I sat next to at a recent conference were rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of commissions on a number they said was more like 45Mbps (variations in compression and resolution may explain the broad range, and I suspect that as with anything, mileage varies considerably).

Just for perspective, it wasn't too long ago that carriers were installing 45Mbps asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) trunk lines between cities. Universities still use them as arteries between their campuses (the room-sized videoconferencing units of the day required a dedicated ISDN line — at a cost of several thousand dollars per month).

At its high end, telepresence uses the same amount of bandwidth. Fibre is suddenly looking a lot more important if this kind of thing is going to take off even a little bit.

This all paints a chicken-and-egg scenario with important sartorial implications for executives everywhere. With costs so high, and incremental benefits so seemingly low, can telepresence become compelling enough that companies will upgrade their infrastructure just to support it? Or, with upgrades the order of the day, is telepresence just an unnecessary way of filling up spare bandwidth by raising expectations with souped-up versions of new technologies?

This question has important implications on mobile networks, where technologists and carriers are encouraging increased usage of bandwidth that is larger than ever, but still finite. Could mobile HD video be the key?

Probably not. Carriers used videoconferencing (to a somewhat tepid response) as a lure for subscribers to 3G networks, and streaming TV or movies are perhaps the only other thing that comes close — even though a full mobile-screen resolution video only uses around 300Kbps of bandwidth. The iPhone and its ilk have bigger screens than ever, but even technophilia has its practical limits.

Could 3D provide that killer app the carriers have been looking for? One Indian firm thinks so, having apparently patented mobile phone hologram technology that would add a new dimension to the word "handheld".

Telepresence may win hands-down for high-resolution, immersive televideo, but Telstra also seems to see promise in 3D — having used a faux 3D technology to demonstrate "holograms" of research head Hugh Bradlow and CEO Sol Trujillo (that gimmick used technology also used by Richard Branson and other bigwigs).

Can this stuff ever fly? Does it even need to?

Pull on those pants. Whether beaming in images of your CEO, delivering holographic TV to your living room, or replicating the world's most famous hologram on your mobile phone, these applications will be driven by bandwidth — and lots of it. And that offers a raison d'être for forward thinkers at your carrier.

Been videoconferencing on your mobile? Gimmick or game-changer? Will telepresence change the way you work — or has videoconferencing already done it?