Do holograms and e-meetings spell the end for TelePresence?

By Harley Dennett

January 23, 2015

Only Australia’s most committed IT enthusiasts would have stayed up to watch Microsoft’s 3am (AEST) presentation yesterday, which included two surprise announcements of teleconferencing and holographic technology. But within a few hours, public servants around the country were buzzing with business uses for the new tools.

Hoping to transform workplace productivity, Microsoft showed off an all-in-one video conferencing, touchscreen whiteboard and group collaboration tool called Surface Hub. The 84-inch, 4K display (that’s ultra-high definition) has a multi-touch surface, supports simultaneous pen input and has sensors to detect when you walk up to it. Once you’ve finished your meeting, the work can be saved and sent to participants.

The Hub is a step-up from the popular TelePresence services currently provided by the Department of Finance’s Government Network Services Branch, and used in government offices around the country for state branch meetings and inter-jurisdiction negotiations. Although both systems feature document sharing, it is unknown whether Hub would be allowed to support secure meetings up to SECRET classification, as the TelePresence system is.

State and federal police forces may also find operational training revolutionised with Microsoft’s new HoloLens. The augmented reality technology allows the user to build and interact with hologram-like constructs inserted into the surrounding environment.

The holographics revealed during the presentation was possibly the only technology on show that wasn’t leaked early, yet the day hadn’t even begun before Defence’s engineering and capability specialists began considering how it could be used in a military context. One officer told The Mandarin it could be a step towards the holy grail of simulations — StarTrek’s holodeck:

“Instead of building a physical tower or building and having TV screens installed on the walls to simulate enemies, you could just have a blank room and have all the [walls and threats] be digitally added,” the officer suggested.

Is TelePresence now redundant?

So is this the end for TelePresence? Well, hardly. The rollout of TelePresence scooped the Department of Finance a Silver Award at the Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management in 2011. Many find it invaluable, others still find it impersonal, but it does save millions in travel costs.

Finance estimates the remote conferencing has saved the Commonwealth alone more than $93.5 million, and there have been 4537 formal meetings since it was implemented.

Telepresence has made a difference for Department of Employment secretary Renee Leon, who told The Mandarin she tries to minimise travel where possible now that the system has been outfitted in locations in each state and territory.

“We do a lot of senior meetings by telepresence now … That does save everyone all that flying around the country and a lot of time,” she said.

But there are limitations. While effective for straightforward transactional meetings, Leon says it can’t cut flights entirely.

“If you’re going to have to do complex negotiations, particularly when you may need to do side negotiations with some people and then come back to a broader group, you can’t really do that unless you’re there in person. And you can’t have all your dealings with whom you have ongoing strong relationships by TelePresence because part of what builds the ongoing strong relationship is the informal connection that you make outside the purely transactional business,” she said.

“But with Commonwealth/state officials quite often we’ll see each other every second or every third meeting and that enables you to do all the relationship building, and then if you’ve got some straightforward transactional business the alternate meetings you can do by TelePresence.”

The Government Network Services Branch operates 38 rooms and 86 desktop videoconference units around the nation, used by Commonwealth ministers, agencies, as well as state premiers’ departments and territory chief ministers’ departments.


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