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Telepresence: Looking Beyond the Hype

(this article originally appeared in the "Real-Time" column of the December 2007 issue of Business Communications Review magazine)

For about a year now, “telepresence” has been the hot buzzword in videoconferencing. Enterprises are being hit by a marketing blitz, led by Cisco, designed to convince them that existing videoconferencing systems are as outdated as black-and-white TV, and that telepresence will both save money and improve productivity. But is there any reality behind the hype?

Before getting too far into a discussion of telepresence, it’s worth setting some ground rules. We define telepresence as videoconferencing that incorporates furniture, lighting, camera and acoustic elements that give meeting participants the feeling that they are all in the same room. This means that a telepresence system goes beyond just high definition on large plasma screens, but defines the entire conferencing experience. Telepresence is meant to deliver a natural meeting experience, with multiple cameras to eliminate scanning and permit individuals to look directly at the other participants rather than the camera.

Telepresence eats a lot of bandwidth, typically 1-6 Mbps per screen depending on the product and the desired resolution. HP’s Halo system requires a full T3 (45 Mbps) between locations. Bandwidth isn’t the only concern; latency, jitter and packet loss need to be tightly controlled to minimize quality issues.

But as the term “telepresence” became a marketing buzzword (largely due to Cisco’s marketing efforts), just about every vendor in the videoconferencing space introduced a “telepresence” offering. Here though, numerous differences exist between offerings. Companies such as Cisco and HP set the bar by offering large-screen displays supporting 1080p resolution, the highest-resolution format currently available. Other vendors offer telepresence rooms with slightly lower resolution (720p is typical).

Should enterprises care about 720p versus 1080p? I’d venture to guess that most would be hard pressed to see a difference. Most discussions I’ve read comparing 720p and 1080p note that 1080p is slightly better for fast-motion pictures, such as sports or action movies, which is hardly the typical content in the average teleconference.

Competitors to Cisco and HP, including Tandberg’s Experia and Polycom’s Telepresence Experience TPX offer 720p resolution and aim to compete in two areas: price and flexibility. Whereas Cisco’s and HP’s solutions list for over $200,000 per room, competitors come in at a lower price and offer integration with non-telepresence users. For example, Tandberg’s and Polycom’s offerings enable users of desktop or non-HD room-based systems to join telepresence conferences (though obviously at a reduced quality). Tandberg even supports interoperability with HP’s Halo.

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