Telepresence shatters communication barriers

Well before the current world financial crisis struck, organizations have sought inventive ways to engage in face-to-face meetings without the need to travel. Companies have turned to services such as Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, Cisco WebEx, Citrix GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Live Meeting as a means for workers in multiple locations to share presentations and otherwise collaborate.

No question, these tools greatly reduce costly, productivity-sapping travel, with the added benefit of lowering a company's carbon footprint. Yet scratchy audio quality, out-of-sync slides, and tiny, Webcam-quality video often diminish these solutions' usefulness.

[ Learn how InfoWorld Green 15 winners Procter and Gamble reaped business and environmental benefits from telepresence. ]

Similarly, more traditional videoconferencing systems (which have been around for decades) suffer from low utilization rates -- partially because of complicated, unreliable technology.

The door has now opened for telepresence solutions: a conferencing environment that seeks to mimic the in-person experience as much as possible. Several technologies make telepresence possible. High-definition video cameras and large, flat-panel monitors clearly display participants in life size. Optimized networks -- making use of QoS and even application-aware protocol acceleration -- help eliminate audio and video delay over long-distance and high-latency WANs. As such, participants can make eye contact with colleagues and immediately pick up on all-important visual cues -- such as how someone reacts to an offer. Moreover, operating the systems can be as simple as using a television remote control or telephone.

Something for everyone
In general, telepresence systems fall into three configurations. First, there are formal group setups, purpose-built rooms that accommodate four to eight participants. Here you'll find warm wall coverings, soft lighting, three or four wall-mounted monitors, and a conventional conference room seating arrangement. In use, it's as if remote participants are sitting across the table from you.

Second, you'll find small-to-midrange setups, which comprise a single monitor and one camera, suited for handling one to four users. This option works well in executive offices, and some systems are mobile enough to be ferried among regular conference rooms. These less-costly systems work over existing networks, yet the picture and audio quality surpass that of early-generation videoconferencing solutions. None come with amenities such as plush suites, but they closely match expensive systems' picture quality and usability.

[ Read about the Test Center's hands-on experiences with affordable telepresence solutions from Polycom and LifeSize. ]

Finally, there are classroom-style rooms that can hold 30 participants or more. These facilities, which are used by corporate and educational institutions alike, usually have multiple monitors or video projectors.

The cost of collaboration
Even with falling hardware costs, a telepresence system doesn't come cheap. A group system at a single site that can accommodate 18 to 36 users can go for $350,000. One reason for the expense is that you typically don't install telepresence systems in any old room. An immersive face-to-face environment requires special lighting, acoustics, and furniture, which all factor into the price. And that doesn't count in-house (or contracted) network and support costs.

But before you despair, take a serious look at how much money you're spending on employee and executive travel among your various offices: airline tickets, food, accommodations, and the like. Factor in how much productivity is lost during travel, as well as how much time that travel can add to moving forward with a project or deal. In the end, you may find fast payback on your investment. For instance, Cisco representatives say that their customers often recover a telepresence investment in six to nine months, according to independent audits.

Notably, there are ways to reduce telepresence costs, including equipment leases and renting time at conferencing facilities. If price is still a barrier, you could consider one of the lower-end, high-performance systems, which run for less than $10,000.

Moreover, video chat applications are improving, too, though it's a real stretch to put them in the same category as fully developed videoconferencing solutions. Still, for little (or no) cost they let several people connect with very usable audio and visual quality.

Meet the telepresence players
There are plenty of vendors out there offering telepresence solutions, all of whom offer a host of equipment packages and associated services.

One of the leading telepresence vendors is Cisco, which should come as no surprise given the company's varied telecommunications products. Cisco's solutions combine high-definition video (720p or 1080p) and spatial audio -- sometimes installed in custom rooms -- into an immersive experience delivered over Cisco IP networks.

The Cisco TelePresence solution is sold in five configurations. Each includes the endpoint hardware, management software, and multipoint switching capabilities. The latter permits large meetings plus interoperability with collaborative applications such as Cisco WebEx. (If you don't already use Cisco routers and switchers, they would be an additional expense.)

At the high end, Cisco TelePresence System 3200 ($340,000) is a three-screen setup with two rows of tables. Providing full spatial audio and life-size video for up to 18 participants, it's typically used for large team meetings or distance learning.

Cisco TelePresence System 3000 ($299,000), comprising three panels, includes a table that sits six on each side for team meetings. It easily fits into most standard conference rooms.

Cisco TelePresence System 1000 ($79,000) is a single-screen, free-standing unit, designed for small group meetings, but a larger monitor makes it suitable for general-purpose conference rooms as well. The just-released System 1300 ($89,000) boosts the screen size to 65 inches, includes three cameras, and accommodates six people.

Finally, the Cisco TelePresence System 500 ($33,900) is an all-in-one, single-screen system designed for one or two users in a private office.

[ Read about the InfoWorld Test Center's hands-on experience with the Cisco TelePresence System 500. ]

Cisco TelePresence Multipoint Switch and Manager applications help ensure a smooth meeting experience. For example, the Switch supports meetings of up to 48 segments (remote locations) and provides built-in security. Moreover, Manager integrates with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes calendars for simple room scheduling. During meetings, an Auto Collaborate feature lets people in all rooms share images from a laptop or high resolution document camera.

Significantly, Cisco delivers high-quality audio and video, with little latency, without using too much bandwidth; this helps to keep costs down. This is accomplished through QoS (quality of service) functions that are part of the Cisco networking components.

If an outright purchase of a Cisco telepresence system isn't in the cards, you might consider renting a Cisco Public Suite, available in Santa Clara, Calif., Boston, London, and major cities throughout India.

Donning HP Halo
Halo has an interesting background. Pioneered at DreamWorks Animation, this solution was originally an in-house project for real-time collaboration between studios in California and Europe. HP then commercialized the system, which is offered in three packages: HP Halo Collaboration Studio, Collaboration Meeting Room, and Collaboration Center, all installed on your premises.

HP manages Halo for you, with the idea that participants simply walk into a room and start collaborating. All Halo rooms operate over the Halo Video Exchange Network (HVEN), a dedicated fiber optic network with AES256 encryption. The main difference among systems is the number of participants supported and corresponding construction costs.

Collaboration Studio ($349,000), HP's ultimate solution, is built inside a dedicated space. It includes sound-absorbing wall coverings, broadcast-quality video cameras, and executive table.

Halo Collaboration Meeting Room ($249,000), which easily sits six people, is usually installed within an existing conference room space. This lowers the cost, but you don't sacrifice industrial design. For instance, a specially designed curved front wall (that holds four plasma monitors) helps keep participants' eyes trained on the meeting at hand.

Halo Collaboration Center, available in two- and four-seat configurations ($135,000 for the four-seater), is HP's smallest telepresence solution. Like the other setups, it's permanent, but designed to fit into an executive's office or small conference room. Standard components include a 65-inch plasma monitor, a 42-inch collaboration screen for data sharing, and one camera. Options include a lighting package and overhead camera.

For all rooms, supporting equipment (including audio mixer, frame grabber, scan converter, and control server) is housed in a rack that's out of sight. This reduces noise and minimizes visual distractions.

HP engineered Halo with several other important features. The proprietary three-axis-control camera system automatically follows participants' head movement for better eye contact. Also, a secondary high-definition collaboration channel lets you share presentations and video from laptops with high fidelity.

Much like HP does with its personal computers, a custom graphical user interface (available in 15 languages) helps users connect to multiple locations with a few clicks.

Finally, through an alliance with Tandberg, Halo rooms can connect to standards-based (ITU H.323, H.320, or SIP) videoconference meetings using the HP Halo Gateway.

In addition to one-time room setup costs, Halo Telepresence Service is $18,000 a month (per Meeting Room or Studio) or $9,900 monthly for each Collaboration Center.

Teliris Telepresence: The old dog with new tricks
Whereas some networking and technology manufacturers recently moved into the telepresence area, Teliris was in on the ground floor 10 years ago. As such, its current fifth-generation solutions are sometimes more innovative. For instance, the company offers optional multitouch tables (pictured below), easels, and walls to interact with content (video, text, photos, and files) using gestures.

Standard features across the Teliris line include pod microphones (with advanced audio processing) and Virtual Vectoring technology that automatically moves cameras to maintain eye contact with all meeting participants.

As with Cisco and HP, Teliris offerings span the range of price and size. Teliris Personal Telepresence ($32,500), a single-screen system for individuals or executive offices, offers broadcast-quality HD video (720p) on a 40-inch display. You can collaborate through picture-in-picture or hook up a second monitor. It also connects to standards-based telepresence and videoconferencing systems through the Teliris Telepresence Gateway.

Teliris Express ($99,000 to $125,000) provides a two- or three-screen (46 inches, 30 or 60 frames per second) experience that fits into existing conference rooms and seats four to six participants.

Teliris VirtuaLive Telepresence is the company's high-end, turnkey solution. Designed to handle 28 participants per room, everything is installed, managed, and supported by Teliris. When specifying meeting rooms, you can select three to six HD monitors (52 or 65 inches), number of seats and rows, and 60-fps high-definition video.

Finally, Teliris Custom Telepresence, as the name implies, lets organizations customize a room for special environments, such as R&D labs, factory floors, or even oil exploration platforms.

The company manufactures its own camera lenses and tracking systems to help ensure realistic eye contact and to capture nonverbal cues. Teliris' signal encoding and decoding handles both standard and high-definition video efficiently, which reduces bandwidth needs. And simple interfaces make easy work of participating in a meeting.

Narrowing your choices
There's plenty to consider when shopping for a telepresence solution. Features vary from product to product. For example, you might need multiple cameras, but not 1080p high-definition video. This table will give you an overview of what each vendor delivers.

Additionally, you should look for a telepresence solution that adheres to standards. For example, compatibility with H.323 (a recommendation by the ITU Telecommunications Standardizations Sector) provides interoperability with videoconferencing equipment from different manufacturers. As a result, your meetings and training sessions can include other institutions or business partners.

Finally, you'll need to make sure your network can handle the weighty bandwidth requirements of telepresence. A general rule of thumb is that you'll need at least 1 Mbps for each video stream, or screen, at 720p resolution, and at least 4 Mbps per screen at 1080p. Naturally, there are practices and products, such as traffic shaping and protocol acceleration technology, that can help you with that. 

This story, "Telepresence shatters communication barriers" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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