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Telepresence inches toward interoperability

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So far, most telepresence vendors have been myopically focused on getting their proprietary systems into the hands of customers, but service providers caution that they need to start thinking now about how to interconnect their systems in order to avoid islands of technology that can’t be bridged.

“Right now vendors are only worried about their own piece of market share,” said Michael Brandofino, president and CEO of Glowpoint, a video managed service provider. “I’ve had this [interoperability] conversation with Cisco and HP and they’ve said, ‘We don’t care right now; we’ll deal with it later’,” he said. “That’s fine, but in the video space, we’ve already had so many starts and stops, the reputation of the technology is at risk.”

For their part, Cisco Systems and Hewlett Packard, two of the most prominent telepresence vendors, say they are thinking about interoperability. HP, for example, has been working with videoconferencing vendor Tandberg to make the HP Halo telepresence system backward compatible with existing videoconferencing deployments. “The introduction of our gateway in the fourth quarter of 2007 was an acknowledgment that customers have an investment in standards-based videoconferencing,” said Darren Podrabsky, marketing manager for HP Halo.

Cisco also offers a gateway that let's its TelePresence system talk to legacy videoconferencing gear, but interconnecting telepresence systems from different vendors is a bigger undertaking.

The problem with telepresence is that many vendors use proprietary technology in their codecs, and they use different call signaling protocols. But what may be an even bigger issue is the fact that there is no agreed upon design for the telepresence rooms themselves. Vendors use different numbers of cameras and screens. Some vendors provide three-screen plasma systems, for example, while others use two or four rear-projection screens. Without display standards, the life-size image quality that separates telepresence from videoconferencing can be lost.

“The question is: Can you see each other in a configuration that offers visual equality?” said Hugh McCullen, general manager of multimedia solutions at Nortel Global Services, a video MSP. “Image equality is critical in telepresence. It’s all about body language and seeing people.”

Although most of Cisco’s competitors believe that Cisco is holding back on interoperability because the company wants to become the de facto standard for telepresence, Cisco says it isn’t spending a lot of time on interconnectivity because customers aren’t demanding it.

“It’s not something people are talking about today because we’re mainly seeing intra-company deployments,” said Erica Schroeder, director of marketing for Cisco TelePresence. “As we start to hear demand from customers, we will need to figure out a way to interconnect.”

Tandberg and Polycom, however, both report that their customers are demanding telepresence system interoperability. “Our clients are talking about interoperability as a top criteria in their selection process,” said Rick Snyder, president of Tandberg Americas. “Standards-based systems are absolutely paramount to achieving a great telepresence experience,” he said. “Without it, this technology becomes an island.”

Nortel also is seeing demands for interoperability, McCullen said. “We have been experimenting with connecting disparate systems; it’s on our service roadmap,” he said. “By the end of the second quarter or beginning of the third we will finish our testing. It’s coming fast.”

Ira Weinstein, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research said he understands why some telepresence vendors aren’t necessarily motivated to interconnect with others. “Why would Cisco want to make it easy for an enterprise to deploy half Cisco and half Tandberg telepresence suites?” he said. “They wouldn’t, especially right now when the typical enterprise is a green-field account. They want to win the whole ball of wax.”

Still, service providers and vendors like Polycom and Tandberg worry that that kind of thinking could derail telepresence.

Joan Vandermate, vice president of marketing for Polycom’s Video Solutions Division, said she fears telepresence could be headed down the same path IP telephony has taken. “I believed that IP telephony would break the stranglehold that a few IP PBX vendors had on the market,” Vandermate said. “Instead, we’ve seen a continuation of proprietary PBX systems. I’d hate to see video follow that same proprietary model.”

Glowpoint’s Brandofino agrees. “From the service provider perspective seeing how customers are using telepresence technology, I think interoperability is huge,” he said.
Glowpoint currently provides managed telepresence services for Polycom and Tandberg systems, and the company also recently inked a deal to begin managing Cisco TelePresence rooms. “It’s really a shame that vendors are putting it as a secondary or even tertiary requirement,” Brandofino added.

Going forward, some industry watchers foresee a phased approach to telepresence interconnectivity. The first step is providing backward compatibility so that customers can connect their telepresence systems to existing videoconferencing deployments. That’s happening now.

Next, users will demand connectivity with other companies using telepresence systems from the same vendor over managed networks, said Howard Lichtman, president of Human Productivity Lab, a research and consulting company dedicated to telepresence. “We have to get systems that are compatible to talk to each other across MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) clouds,” he said. That means network operators and MSPs will have to decide how and where to exchange traffic. Finally, interconnectivity of disparate telepresence systems will be required.

McCullen said he believes that improved bridging technology will be the next big push in telepresence. Bridges are used today to facilitate multi-location telepresence calls. Going forward, the bridge also could act as a kind of universal translator that automatically transcodes and configures images so that they can be displayed on a variety of telepresence systems.

“Bridges are playing catch up to the telepresence systems, with a couple of companies looking to develop carrier-grade platforms,” McCullen said. “I think that in the next 18 months we’ll see a battle of the bridges.”

That’s a fight Teliris would like to win. The company launched its Telepresence Gateway last year as a means of interconnect Teliris’ VirtuaLive telepresence system not only with existing videoconferencing gear but also with other vendors’ telepresence systems. “Right now, we’re the only vendor that can interoperate with different telepresence systems today,” said Mack Treece, president of Teliris.

Analysts like the idea of Teliris’ gateway, but they aren’t sure it will work in practice. “Teliris has put some thought into this,” Weinstein said. “But the problem is, every time a vendor comes up with a new feature or method for its telepresence system, the translator has to be updated. Other vendors aren’t going to be motivated to keep a competitor like Teliris in the loop.”

Lichtman agrees. “Teliris has done some work to understand the geometry of the different systems, but it doesn’t do them a lot of good unless Cisco allows a Teliris end point to register to a Cisco device,” he said.

Interoperability of telepresence systems is inevitable, Lichtman said. But the jury is still out on how the industry will get there. “We are just at the cusp of this because there are only a couple hundred companies that have deployed telepresence,” he said. “When there are thousands of companies using this, and they inherit systems or want to connect with their business partners, the vendors will have to make interoperability happen.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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