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Telepresence: Ready for its close-up

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Telepresence is different from traditional videoconferencing, and even high-definition (HD) videoconferencing, because it gives users the illusion that they are meeting together in the same room. “The experience is immersive, not observant,” said Howard Lichtman, president of Human Productivity Lab, a research and consulting company dedicated to telepresence.

Telepresence systems typically consist of multiple 50-inch plasma screens, which allow for the display of life-size images. In addition, cameras are carefully positioned to achieve the approximation of eye contact, and audio systems provide for surround sound. Finally, all of the technology is hidden so that the room appears to be a typical conference room. Some telepresence meeting participants have reported experiences so lifelike that they have tried to extend a hand for a handshake at the end of a meeting only to remember that they are not, in fact, in the same room.

Besides improving the quality of the visual experience, telepresence also is easier to use than traditional video systems. Most telepresence systems are designed to make initiating a conference as easy as dialing a phone. A managed service can take the headaches away entirely by providing a concierge service that lets users simply make reservations for a telepresence session.

Telepresence also allows for better collaboration opportunities than traditional videoconferencing. Telepresence rooms provide additional screens displayed above or below the plasma row or configured as pop-up screens on the conference table. To share documents or link to the Internet during a telepresence call, users just plug a laptop into a connection at the conference table.

Telepresence technology isn't new. Back in the mid-1990s, TeleSuite, which became Destiny Conferencing and was purchased in 2005 by videoconferencing heavyweight Polycom, came up with the idea. But it was another vendor, Teliris, that launched the first commercial service in 2001. In 2005, HP gave the market a boost with the launch of its Halo service, which originally was designed in conjunction with Dreamworks for Hollywood execs to use in filmmaking. It was HP's entry into the market that caused Cisco to sit up and take notice of the technology's potential.

Today industry-watchers view Cisco, HP, Polycom, Teliris and videoconferencing vendor Tandberg as the top telepresence technology competitors. All of the vendors' high-end products include an entire room installation that amounts to screens, codecs, cameras, microphones, sound systems, furniture and in some cases walls. HP and Teliris also require customers to buy managed services on their private networks, while Cisco, Polycom and Tandberg partner with network operators and managed service providers (MSPs). Analysts also are watching LifeSize and Telanetix, which have entered the market with lower-cost products aimed at getting telepresence to the masses. Their solutions aren't as all-encompassing, allowing the customer to design and furnish the room.

Despite the entry of companies such as LifeSize and Telanetix, telepresence technology so far has been aimed almost exclusively at C-level executives within the Fortune 500, and for good reason: The technology is downright expensive. A typical room installation costs about $250,000, and that doesn't include the network charges for a service that is a true bandwidth hog. HP, for example, requires a DS-3 connection for every room with a monthly price tag of $18,000 per site.

“This is technology for the country club jet set,” said Ira Weinstein, senior analyst and partner for Wainhouse Research, a research and consulting company focused on unified communications.

Robin Gareiss, executive vice president and senior founding partner of Nemertes Research, an independent research firm that specializes in quantifying the business impact of technology, agreed. “I hesitate to call it the killer application for the network until the prices come down,” she said.

But the fact that the technology is aimed at the corporate elite makes it a perfect candidate for managed services, Weinstein said: “Managed telepresence services provide massive value because for these kinds of sessions, it has to be perfect.” In other words, CEOs are not forgiving when the technology doesn't work.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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