Skype is pretty good for talking with people. Due to schedules these days, it's almost the only way I can meet most of the people who want to meet with me. It works relatively well. It saves everyone travel time. But it doesn't work perfectly for the simple reason that the Internet doesn't work fast enough. For a while I thought Facetime would be the thing that brings us to the telepresence age. Now I'm not entirely sure, though I wait with bated breath hoping that Apple releases better presence indications and multi-party calls for Facetime. Well, any update would do, really.
Telepresence is a tremendous holy grail for computing. What's better than email? What's better than screen sharing? Actually being able to look into someone's eyes and trusting them, and making a deal.
In order for it to really work, it has to be:
- Ubiquitous - like Skype, or better than Skype. This means it has to be a desktop and/or mobile software play. Hardware telepresence works really well today, but only for the well heeled.
- High Quality - I mean, the point of telepresence is to have a personal experience of meeting someone without actually moving the atoms there. So 720p HD seems like a reasonable goal. Uncompressed 720p is about 100 megabytes per second, and compressed Bluray is about 15 megabytes per second. The real effective optimized HD telepresence codec of the future I suspect will be someplace in that range of 15 to 100 megabytes per second.
- No skips - not even a little bit. This means the bandwidth needs to be overprovisioned... possibly by a lot. You need bandwidth headroom to absorb spikes.
My guess is Skype or Facetime will be the software/mobile platform for it. Unless some intrepid soul comes along and shocks us all, which I very much hope will happen. Apple may yet amaze us. Skype is useful and probably good enough, but not great.
So then the question basically falls to point-to-point bandwidth. To avoid skips, you need a lot of bandwidth. Especially if you want high quality. Uplink speed on the last mile will be the constraint, since that's typically the slowest link. Modern online speedtests (e.g. speedtest.net) indicate average broadband speeds are coming out to 2 megabytes per second (~15 mbps). Eesh. My Comcast cable modem in California seems to rate limit me to a dismal 500 kilobytes per second.
Randall Stross recently wrote that you can buy 1000 megabits per second broadband for $26/month in Hong Kong. That is awesome! Perhaps telepresence within cities will be viable on a much shorter time frame, a matter of years. The same article mentions Google will be experimenting with gigabit within cities too.
If you wanted to know when real telepresence would really disrupt business travel and be a viable replacement for face-to-face communication, you'd need to do a forecast on broadband speeds. My uneducated guess: anything above 5 megabytes per second bi-directional cross country (e.g. SF to NY) for regular consumer broadband would be the point where you'll start to see technology massively shifting society.
At current rate of broadband speed improvements, it might be a while.