Being There While Not Being There

Virtual presence systems can make design reviews, inspections and more almost as good as being there. And without the hassle of travel.

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There are certain realities in the physical and business worlds: being in two places at once is “challenging,” and time is money. In automotive, specialists are in short supply, high demand, and located worldwide. Shuttling people back and forth is unproductive, time consuming, and expensive, what with scheduling conflicts, travel delays, and travel costs. Design reviews, troubleshooting sessions, best-practice confabs, customer conferences, and other meetings are increasingly done remotely. But phone calls and emailed documents sometimes don’t cut it.

Consider a virtual presence system (also called “telepresence”). These systems use a variety of audio, visual, and networking technologies to bring people together from remote locations so that they can see and hear each other, view nearby objects, and share pictures and videos—in real time.

Think of enterprise-grade virtual presence systems as souped-up versions of Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, ooVoo, Firefox Hello, and many other such systems. The enterprise versions feature security, collaboration tools, and a focus that goes way beyond everyday chit-chats among friends. For instance, the Onsight virtual presence system from Librestream (librestream.com) isn’t about face-to-face meetings, says Marieke Wijtkamp, its vice president, Marketing and Client Services. “We’re sending high-quality visuals and providing the experience of interactivity you need to be able to troubleshoot and review designs remotely.”

What's in a Virtual Presence?

Onsight consists of three main components: client software, hardware, and management software. Onsight Connect is a cloud-based program for Apple smartphones and tablets, Microsoft Windows-based personal computers, and Librestream Onsight mobile devices. The software can be installed on an unlimited number of devices, with an option to log onto four devices simultaneously.

For hardware, there’s the Onsight 2500 camera. It has an IP64 enclosure rating and comes with built-in microphone; 801.11 a/b/g/n wireless communications; optics with built-in lighting, 10X optical zoom, and 1-cm macro zoom; still image and video recording (with freeze frame); and several certifications for operating in hazardous locations. A touchscreen on the back of the camera lets the user draw over live or recorded videos and images. (This drawing capability is called “telestration.” Think of football on television, and the diagrams drawn over the still images of instant replays.) The camera can also be controlled remotely, including zoom, freeze frame, image capture, and lighting. The camera has ports to connect external devices, such as microscopes and borescopes. Other specialized video devices, including thermal imaging, ultrasonic equipment and wearable cameras, can stream content to remote experts in real-time through the Onsight Collaboration Hub. The hub supports any device with S-video, VGA, HDMI, USB, and composite video outputs.

Last, Onsight enterprise software centrally manages user licenses, enforces security (such as WEP, WPA, and WPA2 with AES), and controls bandwidth policies. “Everything we do has multiple layers of security, whether that’s password security to get in, encryption on the content, or encryption on the wireless, and encryption on the transfer mechanism,” explains Wijtkamp.

As anyone knows from watching movies and television shows on their computers, streaming videos across wireless networks can have audio and visual problems, and delays. Similarly, the voice quality on cellphones can be poor. The Onsight system is optimized for streaming voice and video over wireless networks, particularly networks with low bandwidth—even those as low as 64 kbps. By managing bandwidth adaptive streaming, Onsight also supports access via 3G cellular or satellite networks.

In Use

Automotive manufacturers are using virtual presence in many ways, such as giving remote experts access to the test results from metrology centers and proving grounds; enabling machine vendors to inspect, review, and troubleshoot production line equipment at their customers’ facilities; and bringing far-flung product development teams together to review new vehicle designs.

Here’s a real-life example, says Kerry Thacher, CEO of Librestream. “An ergonomic team in Turkey was having difficulty with [a vehicle’s] passenger section and dashboard area. It turned out the same wiring issue had previously been solved by a team based in France. They used Onsight to show France live visuals from the shop floor in Turkey, and to discuss exactly how to solve this issue, accelerating resolution and eliminating the travel.”

Or consider the company needing help installing a machine in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, the machine vendor’s entire engineering staff was at a trade show in Orlando. The staff simply used a laptop to hop onto a hosted Onsight platform to teleconference with the customer. The problem was solved within 20 minutes.

Likewise, a new U.S.-based automotive production line was using robotic equipment from Germany. The vendor typically would send a team of special-ists to perform the vendor acceptance test before the equipment went on-line. Instead of sending five people, explains Wijtkamp, the vendor sent one person with an Onsight camera, which essentially brought in the rest of the team. 

Wijtkamp often has to answer the question, “What’s the matter with, say, Skype? It’s available. It’s free.” Granted, she doesn’t often get that question from automotive. In this industry, security is of extreme importance. “That falls down with Skype,” says Wijtkamp. “The experience you can have—sharing visuals back and forth, creating a knowledge base of content, telestrating, getting that very detailed view—you’re not going to get that experience from a consumer chat tool.”