Testdrive: Cisco's TelePresence hi-def video conferencing system

Yesterday, while at CMP's Enterprise 2.0 conference on Boston's waterfront, not only did I have the opportunity to interview Cisco's senior vice president of emerging technology Marthin De Beer about Cisco's TelePresence system, I was able to conduct the interview over a TelePresence connection.

Yesterday, while at CMP's Enterprise 2.0 conference on Boston's waterfront, not only did I have the opportunity to interview Cisco's senior vice president of emerging technology Marthin De Beer about Cisco's TelePresence system, I was able to conduct the interview over a TelePresence connection. In the Demo Pavilion at Enterprise 2.0, Cisco had a substantial "booth" (if you can call it that) that was architected around two TelePresence "small room" systems (there's also a big room version), each in a separate room, each capable of dialing up the other.

De Beer considers TelePresence's hi-def quality to be a breakthrough that he thinks will once and for all drop the pyschological barriers to videoconfercing adoption. One of Cisco's taglines is that "it's the next best thing to being there." During our preparation for the video interview, Cisco officials talked about how you'd be hard-pressed to miss a bead of sweat (reminding me of Gilda Radner and "dat liddle sweat bawl" she often spoke of, on other people's noses). Another pain point in teleconferencing that De Beer claims Cisco's TelePresence deals with is ease of use. Although we didn't see a demo of it in action, the physical telephone that's connected to the TelePresence workstation integrates with Microsoft's Exchange Server's group calendaring in such a way that when you enter a room to begin a previously scheduled TelePresence call, that scheduled item shows up on the display of the phone and from there, it takes the touch of only one button to connect one or more TelePresence systems to each other.

During the TelePresence-based interview with De Beer, one of the things I noticed was none of those awkward delays when I was done talking. You know... the ones where you're not sure if the person on the other end needs clarification, and you start talking just when they finish hearing what you last said and start responding? The conversation flowed much more naturally and there was none of that Kung-Fu movie like dialogue that was out of synch with the lips of the speakers. Of course, the stellar performance of the system could be attributed to the fact that the IP network over which the packets were passing was a locally switched one instead of a private wide area network (WAN), a metropolitan area network (MAN), or the Internet.

But De Beer maintains that whether the connection was over a LAN to the room next door, or over a private WAN to Bangkok, there wouldn't be much difference. Over the Internet? Well, that's a different story. De Beer said they've done tests over the Internet involving an environment that they had some control over and the results were pretty good. But the caveat, he said, is that once performance-oriented applications like videoconferencing are bound to the Internet, there's no telling what the results will be since Internet congestion is an issue that's largely out of an end-user's control. Anyway, we cover more ground in the video interview (incuding the cost of the small and big room systems and the flexibility of the big screens that come with them in terms of acceptable inputs).

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