Cisco brings videoconferencing to 'life'

Networking giant adds three-dimensional feel to virtual conferencing with new telepresence tools.

SINGAPORE--Networking equipment leader Cisco Systems last week unveiled a new line of high-definition (HD) videoconferencing tools, becoming the latest company to compete in the emerging telepresence market.

The Cisco TelePresence system is touted to offer HD videoconferencing capabilities in an ergonomically-designed environment, comprising plasma displays, highly-sensitive microphones, surround-sound speakers, lighting and specially-designed furniture.

With telepresence, companies attempt to create true-to-life interactions between users based in different locations using ultra-high quality video and audio equipment.

Cisco's new system runs on the customer's existing Internet Protocol (IP) network, and will be available from December this year in two configurations. The high-end offering, TelePresence 3000, caters to larger meetings and seats up to six people, while the scaled-down TelePresence 1000 is designed for individual meetings.

Both models are priced at US$299,000 and US$79,000, respectively, and customers will not need to pay any additional operating fee each month. Cisco will also offer leasing plans, stretching between 36 and 60 months, which include consultation, equipment and installation for one room.

According to the vendor, the system is likely to attract early adopters, such as large enterprises and governments that are looking to reduce employee traveling costs and time.

During a live demonstration held at Cisco's Singapore office Thursday, the TelePresence 3000 was used to simulate a meeting between the company's offices in Hong Kong and Singapore.

The conference room set up at each location was similar, consisting of a semi-circular table that seats six people and three 65-inch plasma displays. Three cameras, trained on the six people who sat behind the table, were mounted on top of the central plasma display.

Participants were able to interact with each other across the virtual table through the 1080-pixel resolution life-size images projected on the plasma displays, and the hi-fidelity audio--projected from speakers attached to the bottom of the plasma display--allowed participants to identify the direction from which the person spoke.

As touted by the networking giant, the transmission had no perceived latency although participants had to learn to face the cameras--instead of the person's image in front on the screen--to focus on the other person's eye while speaking.

The Cisco TelePresence system will be deployed as point-to-point installations until the first half of 2007, after which multi-point systems of up to 40 simultaneous connections will be available, said Chuck Trent, Cisco Systems' CIO for Asia-Pacific.

The company added that there are plans to offer a consumer version of its TelePresence systems, but could not give a definite timeline on when the product might be made available.

Other players in the high-quality videoconferencing market include Hewlett-Packard, which launched its own line of telepresence products--the HP Halo Collaboration Studio--in December last year, alongside partner DreamWorks Animation.