I’ve never been a fan of Telepresence. When I say telepresence I mean the 6 people sitting in a row, talking to 6 more life-size folks over video type telepresence. It’s expensive, it’s inflexible, the running costs are truly ridiculous and it doesn’t remotely scale. the biggest problem with Video Conferencing has always been the, there’s no one to call problem. Telepresence takes us backward in that regard.
Recently Polycom announced a device called the Centro and I basically ripped it to pieces in a few articles. It’s strange looking, it’s expensive, it seemed to be going the wrong way.
However a few friends including David Maldow of LetsDoVideo told me I was wrong and that there was something to this technology after all.
So, of course, I refused to be dogmatic and went to take a look at this strange device. I wanted to share some observations with you after using the device for a few hours.
I will happily admit, I was wrong. It’s not awful. For reasons I will go into later I actually think there’s something rather special about it.
What it is not
Let’s get out of the way what it is not. It is not the answer to the mass deployment of Video Conferencing. It works in Polycom and Microsoft environments, but it’s not flexible, nor with an MSRP of $70k scaleable.
Want a huddle room? look elsewhere
If you’re looking to put in a Cisco SX-20, or a Logitech ConferenceCam Group, running Vidyo, BlueJeans, Lifesize Cloud or Zoom, into a meeting room or huddle please don’t let me stop you. The Centro is not for you.
Thinking Telepresence? Think again
But if you’re considering a Telepresence solution then I think you owe it to yourself to take a look at the Centro.
6+6 is not the answer
Every demo anyone has ever seen of Telepresence involves six photogenic people, sitting down, facing the front, earnestly speaking one at a time to six other people at some far away location.
None of these folks ever wants to stand up, or turn their heads or speak to the colleagues in the room with them. They never want to relax in a comfortable chair, or walk about the room, and heaven forbid they want to draw on a whiteboard, or eat some lunch. It’s an experience about as natural as being a TV news anchor.
Oh and never mention multiple sites. The whole telepresence experience disintegrates as soon as you have multiple groups involved. It looks just like a normal video conference call, but at 20 times the price, with less flexibility.
Look into the fire
The Centro works rather differently and although Polycom is keen to say it’s a different, rather than better experience than their telepresence, I think they are only half right. They do after all sell telepresence, and $70k might seem expensive but that's a very low cost Telepresence solution.
You sit only a few feet away from the Centro so the 27 inch monitors and the images on them seem much clearer and larger than the 70 inch monitors of large meeting room Video Conferencing and telepresence systems.
Cameras and viewing angles
Because the far end appear at slightly below a seated eye line it is possible to converse easily with people in your own room, while simultaneously keeping the far end participants in view.
There are four screens are arranged facing outward in a square so as participants converse with far end parties or with people in the room they are never turning their heads at more than 60 degrees or so. Most of the time much less, so always appear to be looking in the direction of the far end. The camera point vertically and uses a mirror to capture the image. As a result the users don’t see a camera lens staring at them. Even for someone as comfortable and familiar as me on video I think that helps a little.
Lots of room
Additionally with the Centro at the errrr Center of the room, it is easily possible to have 12-18 chairs, couches, bean bags around the room. So there is plenty of space for a large group, or better yet plenty of space for a smaller group to move around. For an hour long call that might not matter for a day long brainstorming session I believe it’s vital.
If there are only one or two participants the Centro works this out over a few minutes and simply concentrates on those users. Once established I think I can honestly say this is lowest interaction I’ve ever had with a system. You just talk to participants in the room or at the far end and the technology melts away.
I’ve talked before about how boardroom and telepresence systems are often where work is discussed. One needs to move down to the huddle rooms to see actual work done.
I think the Centro felt like the sort of technology where work could get done. Groups discussing ideas over a long period would find this a natural way to meet. I could see groups of people writing on white boards, walking around the room, having pizza brought in and talking through it all. Creative types brainstorming would like to use this. I could see Sterling Cooper ordering a pair of these.
I spent two hours chatting with some engineers on the system. Some were present, some were in different locations. I’m sure I never would have done that over a telepresence system. After all I’m neither telegenic, not is there six of me, or them, and the lights would have given me a horrible headache.
A market of 2000
I could probably write a list of a few thousand companies globally who have the need and the resources to be interested in this technology. But that’s no bad thing, it’s a niche product after all. And this technology certainly gives the Polycom team something new and interesting to talk to clients about.
The sense of being in one room certainly works best with two units communicating directly. Multiway calls work no worse than most Video Conferencing. One just has to remember that the more people in a meeting the less effective it is.
Simple to setup
Most high end conference rooms take a huge amount of expensive and time consuming setting up. What with ceiling microphones, and special lighting systems, control panels, bespoke tables and a lot of other elements. The Centro clips together easily and it all comes in the (pretty big) box. All the clients needs to provide is power and ethernet. This thing is not portable, but it is inexpensive to install relative to other solutions at this end of the market.
Did I say it's a niche?
There’s no question it’s a niche device. Polycom won't change the world with this form factor at any price, and at $70k it’s designed to fulfill a need for a very select group. But for Don Draper and his real life executive thinkers it might well be an interesting answer. After all how would Don drape himself across a couch in a telepresence room?
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About the Author: Simon Dudley
Simon is a contrarian. He makes a habit of being the guy who questions the orthodoxy, the guy who doesn’t believe it just because the good and the great said it’s true. This has not always been good for his ascent up the corporate greasy pole. However it’s been very good for his employers if they are prepared to listen.
The Book The End of Certainty "How to thrive when playing by the rules is a losing strategy" explains why groupthink and the doing what you’ve always done is no longer the right move.
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