Videoconferencing used to be a relatively low-resolution 4:3 aspect-ratio affair, but in recent years it has been transformed by high-definition (HD) 16:9 video, displayed on large screens in custom-built suites. To reflect this enhanced, immersive, experience, the term 'telepresence' has been adopted. The exemplar of telepresence is Cisco's eponymous product, which is notoriously expensive — it'll set you back around £150,000 for a dedicated suite, with serious service/bandwidth charges on top of that. HP also plays in this high-end market with its Halo product, along with the likes of Tandberg, Teliris and Polycom.
Clearly there is a vacant niche in the videoconferencing ecosystem for something more capable than do-it-yourself 'Skype and a webcam' solutions, yet cheaper than feature-rich but exorbitant Cisco/HP-style installations (despite recent moves to cut prices in this market). This is where Austin, Texas-based LifeSize comes in — most particularly with its entry-level £3,499 LifeSize Express product.
LifeSize Express is a single-screen, point-to-point telepresence system comprising an HD codec, an HD pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera, a high-definition MicPod microphone and a wireless remote control. Any display with an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) port can be used. Note that this is a standalone system — no PC is required.
The codec, which handles the audio/video streams in real time, is a slim, roughly A4-footprint, unit measuring 28.8cm wide by 18.7cm deep by 4.13cm high and weighing 1.29kg. Bar a couple of status LEDs at the front, all the action is on the backplane, where the I/O connections reside.
The LifeSize Express codec.
From left to right, there's a reset button, a 4-pin power connector (from the bulky 19V AC adapter), a VGA input for displaying PC output, a FireWire port for the camera, HD video-in and video-out ports, RJ-45 connectors for the LAN and the optional LifeSize Phone plus microphone, line-out and line-in jacks.
The camera is a solid pan-tilt-zoom unit that can deliver 1,280-by-720 (720p or WXGA) video at 30 frames per second (fps), although the resolution you actually get at the remote end of a two-way link will depend on the bandwidth available (>1Mbps is required for 720p). It connects to the codec via a 7.5m FireWire cable, giving you reasonable placement flexibility (a 15m cable is also an option).
The LifeSize Express HD pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera.
The camera's wide-angle lens has a 70-degree field of view and a 4x optical zoom that's operated via the supplied infrared remote control.
The remaining components are the aforementioned MicPod microphone and the remote control. The MicPod is a disc-shaped omni-directional mic with a 7.5m combined audio/power cable, adorned by a mute button and call status/mute indication LEDs.
The LifeSize Express MicPod microphone and infrared remote control.
The remote control lets you navigate LifeSize Express's on-screen menu system, control the local or remote PTZ cameras, mute the microphone and adjust speaker volume.
LifeSize Express in action, in ZDNet's Dialogue Box video show.
Of course, you're not going to spend £7,000 to videoconference within the same building, and it takes a little more effort to configure the system to work with remote sites beyond your firewall. If you use static NAT (Network Address Translation) to map a public IP address to LifeSize Express's private IP address, the system needs to be configured to work with your static NAT server. Some management functions are not available if you access LifeSize Express via a (Flash 8-enabled) browser from outside a firewall with static NAT enabled.
To allow LifeSize Express to talk to other systems through a firewall, you'll need to open up TCP port 1720 for H.323 call setup and UDP port 5060 for SIP call setup. The administrator guide is pretty clear, and any competent IT manager should have no problem setting up communications links.
LifeSize Express is a standards-based videoconferencing system, unlike most of the low-end solutions. Specifically, the standards supported are: H.323 and SIP (communications); H263, H.264 and H.239 (video); G.711, G.722, G.722.1C, G.728, G729, MPEG-4 AAC (audio). H.264 compression is what shoehorns HD video into 1.5Mbps bandwidth, while H.239 allows a second video stream — for example from an attached PC running a presentation — to be added to the mix.
In use, LifeSize Express does its job very well. Although the video is not artefact-free, it looked very good on the 24in. HD monitors (from ASUS and Samsung) we used in our tests. The overall audio-visual experience is certainly streets ahead of any low-end webcam solution we've seen (although these are getting better).
Once firewall issues are sorted, LifeSize Express's default settings work pretty well, while the codec automatically adjusts video frame rate and quality to match the available bandwidth (dropping to DVD quality — 848 x 480 pixels — at 512Kbps, for example). You may have to manually adjust the camera's white balance to suit your location, but that's about it.
Although £3,499 (plus the cost of an HD monitor) per location is not exactly cheap, LifeSize Express is a great deal more affordable than the high-end telepresence systems touted by the likes of Cisco and HP. If you want more functionality than the single-screen, point-point Express product, LifeSize offers a range of solutions that progressively add more participants, screens and cameras: Team MP (£5,299), Room (£7,499) and Conference (£22,999). We're impressed, although we'll be keeping an eye on the improving low end of the videoconferencing market, exemplified by products such as ooVoo and SightSpeed.