Immersive Telepresence: New Systems for a Declining Market
Super big video conferencing systems may only serve a niche in the enterprise, but that hasn't stopped ongoing development from Cisco, Polycom, and Huawei.
When it comes to video conferencing these days, virtual meeting rooms, mobile and desktop clients, cost-effective cloud services, and similarly democratizing solutions are in. Super big systems that deliver a super quality experience at super crazy prices are out. Or are they?
If you go by the numbers, things look pretty gloomy for immersive telepresence solutions, those high-end systems that use HD video, life-size images, just-so lighting, and custom furniture to create the illusion that all participants are in the same conference room. While Ovum doesn't do forecasts of communications systems, some of my friends at rival analyst firms do. IDC analyst Rich Costello, for instance, said in December 2014 that multicodec telepresence equipment revenue was down nearly 16% year over year. Earlier in 2014 the numbers were even less kind, with the estimated year-over-year decline ranging from just over 26% to nearly 35% depending at which quarter you look.
Moreover, the market for immersive telepresence systems is only about one-tenth the size of that for regular room-based systems -- $34 million compared with $347 million, again according to IDC. But that's revenue for just one quarter. There's about $130 million to be made annually from immersive systems, and even if the figure is dwindling that's still a big chunk of change. This is at least in part why we're seeing not just continued development on and incremental upgrades to immersive telepresence systems but vendors releasing entirely new generations of their systems.
Cisco IX 5000
For Cisco this takes the form of the IX 5000, an entirely new three-screen immersive telepresence endpoint that replaces the TX 9000 in the company's portfolio. Conversations about immersive systems are always a tad surreal to me, touching on points that never come up with other business communications technology. Rowan Trollope, the Collaboration Technology Group SVP speaking at Cisco's fall 2014 Collaboration Summit, drew attention to the IX 5000's recyclable casing that weighs half as much as the TX 9000 and is compact enough to fit in a freight elevator. (Apparently cranes were a pain point for Cisco customers getting oversized, one-ton immersive telepresence units into their offices.) Room remediation is now optional with the IX 5000, so customers can choose whether or not they want to tweak lighting, decor, and acoustics when they plunk one of these things into an office.
Other improvements have more in common with more run-of-the-mill communications systems. It requires less bandwidth (10.8 Mbps for 1080p60 as opposed to 19 Mbps for the TX 9000) and consumes less power (0.9 kW vs 2.7 kW), as well as weighs less (1,235 lb vs 2,000+ lb), throws off less heat (3,000 BTUs vs 9,500 BTUs), and draws power from a single electrical outlet.
The system also features cameras that produce images at 4K ultra-high resolution and that Cisco puts to interesting use. Using the 4K cameras, the IX 5000 creates an image that's four times larger than what's actually needed to fill the three screens of an immersive telepresence system. This is cropped down to show participants seated behind their tables. But when someone stands up, the crop is removed, effectively zooming the image out to show both standing and sitting participants.
This solves the problem of having participants appear sawed in half whenever they stand up. But it can be argued that the act of zooming in and out disrupts the illusion of face-to-face meetings, since the size of conference participants gets smaller and larger as people stand and sit. In fact, in Trollope's Collaboration Summit demo, the table top of all remote participants, as well as their hands and half their arms, were entirely cut off from the bottom of the display when one person stood up.
You can see what I'm talking about at the 8-minute, 30-second mark in the video below.
New features -- including zoom via 4K mentioned above, as well as lower bandwidth via H.265, optional remediation -- are specific to the IX 5000 series. The codecs of Cisco's existing telepresence systems don't have the processing power required to create the three zoomed out images at 1080p resolution, so they can't be upgraded or retrofitted to support the feature. This means Cisco is counting on customers not so much to upgrade their existing immersive systems, but to invest in entirely new ones.
The six-seat IX 5000 studio lists for $299,000, while the 18-seater is $339,000. This is exactly the same price as TX 9000 systems. So Cisco is counting on customers to pay a hefty price for the new functionality. Or rather, Cisco's pitch is that the total cost of ownership of its new immersive systems is dramatically lower because customers will pay less for room remediation, installation, power, cooling, and bandwidth.
Click to the next page for a look at Polycom and Huawei systems