Why you should care about TelePresence

Get to grips with the next generation of videoconferencing technology, and find out why it is causing such excitement among suppliers
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

Taken in its broadest sense, TelePresence is the next generation of videoconferencing technology. It creates the impression that a conversation is taking place in one room when the participants may be on the other side of the world from each other. Suppliers of conferencing equipment are getting very excited about TelePresence as the more lifelike the conference session is, the more people are likely to use it.

Which suppliers are behind this?
Cisco and HP are making a hefty play in this market alongside some of the mainstream conferencing vendors, including Tandberg, LifeSize and Teliris. The top global conferencing supplier Polycom produces a TelePresence solution, but calls it Real Presence Experience (RPX). Polycom is widely perceived to have some of the best audio and (network depending) video quality.

What's the difference between TelePresence and plain old videoconferencing?
The difference is the actual experience you get. TelePresence is often conducted in a dedicated conferencing room, in which you can do nothing else but conference. It's fitted out with large plasma TV screens and generally lots of attention has been paid to the dynamics of the room, including the acoustics and the lighting. The packet latency and "jitter" (variation in delay) are also likely to be extremely low. Cisco claims that one customer found its technology so realistic that he tried to shake hands with the person on the other end of the line.

Sounds great. How do I get one?
By forking out typically £150,000-£200,000 per site — if you speak to Cisco or HP. This price point is one of the reasons why standard conference room and desktop videoconferencing will be around for a long time yet.

That is expensive. How many companies have bought TelePresence suites?
Not many. Financial institutions, particularly those with a large geographical footprint, are likely to be among the most interested. PepsiCo is using HP's system. Cisco has had less luck, and can't yet name any customers at all.

How long have TelePresence offerings been around?
Such solutions have typically been shipping (or trying to ship) since last summer.

Are there any other requirements for TelePresence?
Well, apart from the space to house the systems, you need a chunky network to transport the conference streams. Cisco says up to a dedicated 12Mbps might be needed, even with compression.

Didn't Cisco give away some TelePresence systems?
Yes it did. Five developing nations have been given two sets each at a cost of some £3m.

So TelePresence has been a bit of a commercial flop then?
So you might suspect. But Fidelity Investments, the venture capitalists, see it as a huge growth opportunity. Together with Columbia Capital, Fidelity has this week ploughed $40m of funding into Teliris. Further reason for optimism comes from Wainhouse Research, the largest analyst firm to specialise in the conferencing marketplace. Wainhouse has dedicated its first European user forum of the year specifically to TelePresence.

If I happen to have a spare £150,000 to spend on TelePresence, what questions should I be asking?
There is a considerable difference between some of the systems and there is no substitute for a properly set up demo. Differences exist in terms of the number of users, number of sites, whether the system supports multipoint calls, bandwidth, compression and, of course, price. Also ask about document sharing, if that's something you'll need to do. But it's also worth remembering that desktop conferencing is coming on strong, and with excellent application integration its benefits (albeit at a lower conferencing quality) will still outweigh the high costs of TelePresence for many businesses.

Will TelePresence systems interoperate with other conferencing devices?
Generally no. HP is trying to ensure that its TelePresence system will work with all Tandberg devices or endpoints as the industry calls them, but beyond that, be careful. If you want to mix and match, then lower-end systems, which are more standards-based, may be for you.

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