Tel: 905–690–4709 dk@tfwm.com - Darryl Kirkland, Publisher

Telepresence: The Future of the Video Venue?

Would you be able to watch a sermon done by a hologram? What if you couldn’t tell that it was a hologram? What if the hologram was on the stage interacting with a real Pastor? What if the hologram started interacting with you?

Houses of worship are constantly making plans to implement new and innovative ways to reach people. People tend to love new technology, and they love it even more when it is implemented seamlessly, for the right reasons.

Telepresence is still a relatively new technology, and it is not without its own set of complications. Considering the potential resounding effect it can have on congregants, and the decreasing costs for the components to make it possible, the case for implementing Telepresence in houses of worship keeps getting stronger.

What we know generally about Telepresence is that, when it is done right, it allows us to communicate ideas and convey information from one place to another in a manner that feels natural. Proper Telepresence augments reality, in essence. It makes you think that an image of a person in front of you is actually a real live person. With enough suspension of disbelief, the hologram may as well be real.

As an example, Telepresence conferencing systems allow for virtual meetings. Depending on the display and capture configuration set up in the separate locations, you can make it feel as if you are sitting at a table with your entire team, even though you’re all not in the same building. Once you get around the technology of the setup, the meeting environment feels very natural. Of course, that is the point.

There are also potential applications for Telepresence solutions in a house of worship sanctuary. What if your church was able to “beam in” a guest speaker from a remote location instead of having to physically fly the person in and put them up at someone’s house of a hotel? Or, instead of watching video of the lead Pastor conducting a sermon, a 3D hologram stands on the stage from within your facility, giving you the sense that they are physically present. Not only that, the hologram (again, depending on the setup) could interact with the congregation as if he or she was physically present. These scenarios, excitingly, are only scratching the surface.

Telepresence Versus Video Venue
What some people do not know about Telepresence is that at its heart, it is a communication method. It is dialogic, not monologic, meaning two way, not one way. Telepresence offers us a different philosophy about how we can connect as people.

Some of us have witnessed the “video venue” scenario, where you have one Pastor sent out to multiple locations, one way. There is nothing wrong with this approach at all. It is interesting though, to consider the ways that Telepresence can take video venue to a whole new level.

“Telepresence is not the same thing as a video venue,” says Donnie Haulk, President of Audio Ethics, a design-build company based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Telepresence is a two way conversation live, taking place between two remote locations. Telepresence is happening as much in real time as physically possible.”

This conversation element is what gives Telepresence a unique quality. Because Telepresence is based on facilitating communication, it becomes less of a presentation technology, and more of a dialogue between two (or multiple) sources. This level of interactivity gives people a chance to potentially get more creative.

“Telepresence is a two-way conversation,” agrees Houston Clark, Co-Owner of a solutions-based company called Clark, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Clark is actively involved with implementing early adoptions of Telepresence solutions in several houses of worship. “Traditional video venues have not been Telepresence environments. We want to create ‘as if you were there’ environments. We’re creating Telepresence solutions not just for communication, but to create emotionally connected moments in time.”

“Telepresence implies an emotional exchange supported by life-like representation of remote participants,” explains Peter Maag, Senior Vice President of HaiVision Network Video. HaiVision develops codec and transfer technologies to facilitate Telepresence deployments in many facility types, including houses of worship. “The ‘exchange’ denotes an interactive session using bi-directional video. Video venue implies more simply the one-way transmission of source video.”

On the whole, people have grown rather accustomed to watching things on screens. In many video venue churches across North America, the sermon is captured on camera and then delivered to several facilities, essentially broadcasting to multiple locations. It is an effective way to deliver a Pastor’s message to several buildings, without having to physically transport the same individual from one place to the next. What some churches are trying to research is how to improve this medium so it doesn’t feel like people are simply watching a video.

“Telepresence got its start in conferencing rooms, allowing people to meet face to face in small rooms to exchange information, not to experience emotionally connected points in time.” says Houston Clark of Clark. “With the advancement of 3D technology and others, it has taken it from an information transfer technology to an emotionally connected environment.”

Just as the World Wide Web went through a major evolution with the adoption of Web 2.0 philosophy, (building interactive communities online as opposed to using websites as business cards) so may the state of video venue in today’s house of worship start to change. What we may expect to see in the near future is a departure from the monologic format of doing worship.

Telepresence Applications
The common thread in many of these video venue facilities is the Pastor’s sermon. Many of these churches will have their own bands performing worship, physically present in the building. Most people find that worship is more engaging with a live band in the room, rather than listening to and watching a live band on a series of screens. The congregation reacts differently and there appears to be a heightened sense of togetherness when the band is live.

“People in general will be more interactive with live musicians,” says Donnie Haulk. “This type of solution allows you to have that interactivity and then bring in video from other locations so everyone feels like they are worshipping together, even though they are physically in different locations. It doesn’t feel like you’re sitting in a movie theater worshipping to a video screen.”

The live band element, used in conjunction with Telepresence, is what some of these facilities are now researching. Potentially, the house of worship would be able to bring in a guest speaker from a remote location to take the stage after the band finishes. This person could then interact with the audience as if they were truly present.

Houses of worship are testing out different scenarios using these solutions right now. The exciting part is that many of these venues are still in planning stages; they are just beginning to push the boundaries for what Telepresence can accomplish.

“HaiVision’s very first house of worship deployment, WAVE Church in Virginia, launched their first remote session to a theatre venue using bi-directional video,” recounts Pater Maag. “The ‘connection’ between the host and remote audiences, Pastors, and bands was astonishing.”

“People want to be able to do a ‘shout-out’ to someone on the other end, so that they can banter back and forth.” explains George Clark of Clark. “We are seeing a trend where facilities want to be connected with the other sites. Those people want to feel really connected to their Pastor because emotionally, they want to be able to have access to that person.”

The facilities that are looking to implement Telepresence solutions are for the most part hoping to push the envelope past video conferencing. The inexpensive version of video conferencing is usually Skype or iChat. There are applications for this, depending on the needs of the house of worship. However, this type of video conferencing is not on the same level of quality as Telepresence. Plus, the question arises as to why someone would make the effort to go to a facility to witness a conferencing solution that they could just as easily experience at home on their laptop.

“Teleconference systems like Skype and iChat are designed for low-bandwidth, and normally indicate lower quality video and audio.” George Clark indicates. “That is not what we’re talking about with Telepresence. In Telepresence, you are trying to suspend disbelief. We’re seeing a bit of a backlash right now in churches over poorly produced video venue environments. We live in an age where we can easily get good content directly on our mobile devices without even getting out of bed. We think that the churches that are focused on just pumping out information will be struggling in the future. Telepresence allows us to be virtually be present in multiple locations, and that’s different than simply spewing out information.”

Depending on the congregation and their relationship to the Pastor, people may want to be able to ask him or her questions in real time. That is different than what is taking place at many facilities doing multi-site right now. Of course, this type of connectivity comes with many production challenges. Things have to be timed exactly right, in multiple places simultaneously.

For proper two-way communication through Telepresence, you will need to set up solutions for capture, delivery and display at each location. That means the pipeline (fiber optic cable, broadband network, or otherwise) you have running between the locations is essential, seeing as any noticeable delay will deter from the experience. It also means that, depending on the experience you are striving for, the “cultural proxemics” need to be accurate in order to pull off the right effect. In other words, the perspective needs to feel realistic. In a conference room solution, for example, you would not want to have some folks sitting at a table, interacting with a display of someone’s huge face. This would ruin the effect of the virtual meeting, and would also seem rather Orwellian.

Cultural Proxemics in Telepresence vernacular refers to making an environment relevant and realistic, thus creating the effect of a natural conversation. People on either end of the discussion should ideally be captured by cameras so they are on the same “plane” when they arrive at the remote location’s display.

If you want a Telepresence effect in the sanctuary, your stage configuration needs to be set up accordingly, with cultural proxemics in mind. The person being captured on the other end needs to look real when they are beamed into the remote facility. They won’t look right if they are displayed as being ten feet tall, or if they are just a floating head and shoulders addressing the congregation. The subject also needs to be lit properly so they don’t look washed out or too dark. Getting the effect to look right takes a lot of planning, and unfortunately, as with many things, quality costs.

The Expense of Telepresence
Telepresence as a medium has been roped into some controversy, considering that some facilities find it hard to justify the expense. The potential power of the medium is still to be determined on a grand scale, seeing as the technology to achieve “true Telepresence” is still incredibly cost-prohibitive.

“None of this stuff is cheap,” says Donnie Haulk. “It is still cost prohibitive for most ministries. The cheapest we can do a holographic Pastor right now is still $300,000. That’s just the base of Telepresence technology. You still have to do the lighting design correctly, the platform needs to be right… you may end up spending many thousands more to enable your congregation to be able to see the holographic Pastor properly. Although, we are talking about $300,000 versus two to three years ago when it was more like $700,000 to do it. In a few years, it may come down to being roughly twice as much as a regular video projector.”

“If you already had the audio, video and lighting systems in place and you wanted transmit from point A to point B, I would put it at $150,000 per site.” states George Clark. “That’s just the straight encode, decode and server side of that. Of course, from even a year ago, we would have said $300,000 a site. We think that’s going to go down even lower in the next six to eight months.”

Basically the cost of entry into doing Telepresence has decreased significantly, even with a plan to retain quality. If the costs of the encoding, decoding and server technologies continue to decrease by 50% every year, then it is likely that more facilities are going to start looking into it.

With Telepresence, the question lies with whether your house of worship can find applicable uses for the technology, enough to justify the expense of making the leap. This, once again, is going to depend on what type of experience your congregation expects. The other thing to consider is, Telepresence is going to evolve. Coupled with the headlong race that is being carried out in regards to 3D solutions, the associated products for Telepresence may be finding their way into more and more applications. These types of quality driven, multi-directional communication methods are going to be increasing, and the demand will end up driving down associated costs. In short, the result will be faster, better, less expensive immersive solutions for houses of worship.

Needless to say it will be interesting to see just where the advancements in this exciting medium will take us.

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