Telepresence, unified communications and collaboration: A network operator's role

Tom Nolle, President, CIMI Corp.
25 Sep 2008

Networking and telecom started with the goal of creating connections among communities of users. While voice was the original medium of these messages, the expanded availability of computers and data-capable appliances like cell phones created a broader notion of what 'communications' among users meant.

The advent of the Internet and relatively inexpensive broadband services has also introduced video into the communications picture. Like all changes, these have created both problems and opportunities for vendors and service providers, but the response of the marketplace to harnessing the new communications options often seems muddled and confusing.

It would be fair to say that the purpose of interpersonal communications, at the very least, is to create some form of 'virtual presence' in order to simulate the normal face-to-face framework of human interaction among a group of users who cannot be at the same place at the same time. For this reason, we could put telepresence at the top of a hierarchy of interpersonal communications strategies. According to Wikipedia, 'Telepresence refers to a set of technologies that allow [people] to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect, at a location other than their true location.'

Telepresence is a technology set that defines a goal, which is the ability to 'feel as if they were present.' Obviously, any definition that includes words like 'feel' or 'give the appearance' or 'have an effect' is subjective, and one of the first challenges that modern interpersonal communications faces is figuring out what a given user might think necessary or even useful in creating telepresence. The market is taking two primary approaches, and those create the other two main threads of modern interpersonal communications: unified communications and collaboration.

Unified communications enables 'presence' policies

Unified communications (UC) approaches the question of what makes one 'feel' as if one is present in a virtual sense by working to break down the hard boundaries between the various communications channels that are available to users. A typical heavy user of communications services today has wireline phones, cell phones, email, instant messaging and SMS, and perhaps video and whiteboard capability. The typical user exercises all these options independently, despite the fact that they all converge on the same person and depend on that person's attention for their use.

Unified communications works to separate the notion of the user, which is often called the user's 'presence,' from the multiple channels of communication available and -- from the way the user is currently employing these communications tools -- to create a sense of what the user's needs for communications might be.

Without UC, a person might call on a cell phone while the user is on a wireline phone or busy writing an email. With UC, rules or policies can be established to control how each of the communications channels is allowed to work, given the combined cross-channel behavior of the user. With UC, in this example, the user might set a policy that says that if he is active on his wireline phone or typing an IM, cell phone calls should kick to voicemail.

Collaboration tools enable increased interaction

Collaboration is a mission-focused way of viewing the evolution of interpersonal communications. Many personal communications are simply short Q&A sessions or other minimal interactions, where voice communications are more than adequate to serve the needs of both parties. There are tasks that require more intense interaction and cooperation than voice alone can provide, however. These tasks are often called 'collaboration,' but the term that has been used in the IT world for a decade or more is 'computer-supported cooperative work' (CSCW).

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