Technologizer

Wharton and Cisco Show Off the Telepresence Classroom of Tomorrow

The business school and networking company turn facilities in Philadelphia and San Francisco into one virtual classroom.

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

As I write this, I’m watching a presentation in a classroom of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Nothing remarkable about that — except that the gent doing the presenting is in Philadelphia, and I’m at the school’s San Francisco branch.

That’s the whole point of the presentation, though. The event in question is a demo of a joint project between Wharton and Cisco to use Cisco’s telepresence technology to make long-distance learning feel more like traditional in-person instruction.

The demo was possible because Wharton now has telepresence-equipped classrooms in Philadelphia and San Francisco. Each has multiple cameras that can send live 1080p video feeds, covering the entire room, to the other classroom, plus a projection screen that lets a remote instructor appear in slightly-larger-than-life form at the front of the other room. Screens at the back of each classroom show every seat in the other location, so everybody can see everybody else; displays on the side walls can show presentation slides or other content, or bring in folks in yet other telepresence-equipped rooms.

How’s it work? The demo, at least, was impressive. The distant presenters did look like they were being projected on a giant screen, and the audio, while completely comprehensible, was a tad tinny. So it didn’t feel like mind-boggling virtual reality. But all the video was hiccup-free, and any lag was undetectable, so the conversation between coasts was surprisingly natural. It’s not tough to imagine teachers and students quickly forgetting about all the technology and settling into a classic mode of teaching and learning.

For Wharton, the system can supplant its current approach to its bicoastal campuses, which involves professors flying cross-country to teach a few hours of courses in person, then jetting back to their home base. That means that over time, telepresence could be a moneysaver as well as an innovation and a convenience.

I asked one Cisco executive about the initial cost of Wharton’s facilities, the first of their kind at an educational institution, and he explained that the school’s investment includes Cisco’s video networking setup, projectors provided by another company and services from a systems integrator that pieced everything together. He also noted that Cisco itself, which has 1900 telepresence rooms, has cut its travel budget by hundreds of millions of dollars a year since it started encouraging workers in disparate locations to conduct video meetings.

But his answer didn’t include any specific figures for Wharton’s new rooms. So I tried again with Robert Lloyd, president of development and sales for Cisco, who told me that the up-front cost for telepresence of the sort Wharton is using remains substantial. “You’re at a tier-one business school right now,” he said. “There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars of technology in this room.” However, Lloyd also says that telepresence will reach less well-heeled schools, too: “You see versions of this technology reaching into high schools as we speak.”

Cisco’s telepresence equipment, already widely used in the corporate world, certainly has the potential to change education for the better. And even though Cisco gave up on its Umi system for consumers before it ever had a chance to prove itself, I’m also convinced that every TV set will eventually be a high-quality telepresence system. It’s going to be fun when the distance-eliminating technology Wharton and Cisco demonstrated today is just the mundane stuff of everyday life, not an occasion for a press conference.

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