I was recently invited to join a panel discussion titled “Making Meetings Immersive” with some fellow analysts. With my background covering the telepresence community, I was excited to share my thoughts and feelings on the past, present, and future of the immersive experience. I was taken a bit off guard when I realized that the rest of the panel was using the term “immersive” in a completely different context than I was used to. The video industry can get pretty touchy when it comes to terminology, so I decided to write this piece to clarify the traditional meaning of immersive, and contrast it to how the term was used in this panel. I also want to make the point that regardless of terminology, I agree that productivity (the real topic of this panel), is now the most exciting and important element of today’s video enabled workspaces.
The History of Immersive Video Experiences
The term “immersive” entered our space as an answer to a raging controversy. That controversy was a result of the dilution and misuse of the word “telepresence” from its original meeting. In the beginning, telepresence was used to describe an experience that was so lifelike that one would forget they were using technology to meet with a remote participant. After the meeting was over you would stand up and try to shake hands with your counterpart, before realizing he or she was actually just an image. At least, that was the theory.
The controversy goes all the way back to the 1990s. Some of the first solutions to call themselves telepresence created 3D hologram images of participants, using techniques and effects like Pepper’s Ghost. Other early solutions used typical two dimensional images on standard monitors, but carefully set things up so the remote people would appear at full size and be positioned across the table from the in-room participants. Even at this time the battle over the term was in full effect, with the 3D players insisting that a flat image of a person wasn’t really a telepresence experience. The fight rages on to this day in the project page for the Wikipedia entry on Telepresence.
Things got worse, much worse, when Cisco entered the telepresence market in 2006 and subsequently rebranded ALL of their videoconferencing products as telepresence. Pretty soon, everything was marketed as telepresence. We had telepresence apps on our mobile devices. Obviously, a mobile video experience could never meet the definition of a telepresence experience and fool you into believing that you were actually in the same room as the remote participant. Unless your friends are actually only a few inches tall and fit in the palm of your hands. This is when we started using the term “immersive” to distinguish “true telepresence” from what was really just common videoconferencing suffering from a telepresence branding epidemic.
This is how I have been using the term immersive, and how I was anticipating it being used in this panel. To describe an experience created with videoconferencing technology designed to create the illusion (to one extent or another) of actually being in the same space (i.e. present) with your remote participants.
A New Way To Think About Immersive Meetings
Much to my surprise, during my recent panel discussion the other analysts were using the term immersion not to refer to a lifelike experience, but to refer to a meeting where remote participants are equally as productive as in-person attendees. To put the terminology aside for a moment, I am a big believer that this is what matters to today’s typical videoconferencing user. Today’s meetings are all about productivity. Today’s meetings are working sessions, not just status update sessions. If I am forced to attend a meeting over the phone, I do not feel like a productive member of the team. At best, I feel like I am following along with the discussion, and occasionally chiming in. In order to be a part of the working team I must attend over video and be able to share my screen, as well as see what the in-room attendees are viewing or working on. It is not what I would call an immersive experience, but I suppose it might be acceptable to call it immersive productivity.
I am happy to let the pedants argue over the terminology. At the end of the day, what matters is catering to the needs of today’s working teams. This means providing them with solutions that allow them to easily attend meetings remotely over video with strong content share capabilities. At the end of the day, what matters is getting the work done. You can call it immersive productivity, you can call it the empowerment of remote workers, you can just call it cloud video. As long as you don’t call it in on the phone, you have a chance of contributing to the team on an equal footing as the in-room meeting attendees.
Do Immersive Experiences Still Matter?
Absolutely! While huddle room productivity may have the spotlight at the moment, there is still a place, and a future for immersive experiences. If Chuck Robbins needs to talk to Tim Cook about the details of embedding Cisco software into the next iPhone, they aren’t going to chat over Facetime. They will probably still want to meet in person, or at least on something like Cisco’s IX5000. It doesn’t end there, as we may just be entering the next phase in immersive meetings as virtual reality enters the workplace. I’m still not sold on wearing headsets in the meeting room, but I am keeping an open mind for now.
Immersive experiences may no longer be the lead story in the videoconferencing world these days. It has taken a backseat to supporting fully productive meetings. However, we haven’t heard the last of it. Someday, maybe soon, we will have a headset free, true immersive meeting experience as seen in the movies.