Next-Generation Telepresence Is Here And It Works update from January 2010

Telepresence is turning video communications into a near in-person experience. For a price, it's the next best thing to being there.

Michael Healey

January 21, 2010

4 Min Read
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It's been a long time since any claim of a "next-generation" technology has held up against our twice-bitten mentality, hardened by years of IT hype. But telepresence appears to be succeeding.

These systems combine room-sized audio, video, and ergonomic design to simulate live interaction. They're the stuff of George Jetson and Buck Rogers, filling a gap in the communication options available today.

But the systems don't come cheap. They start at $30,000, with a fully functional room that seats eight to 16 people hitting $300,000--per site. The high-def cameras, video screens, and integrated sound all drive up the cost, as does the infrastructure and network upgrades required.

Major vendors include video pioneer Polycom, as well as Teliris and Vidyo. Cisco is a force, having fleshed out its video communications product set with its acquisition last year of longtime player Tandberg. Mouse and desktop camera maker Logitech raised eyebrows when it bought LifeSize last year, a videoconferencing and telepresence system vendor.

Telepresence systems combine updated compression and video protocols in high-def TV with good old-fashioned human factors engineering to add the subtleties of personal conversation--eye contact, voice tone, body language--to traditional video. These systems don't have a broad range of interoperability and have bandwidth requirements that make Web-based usage questionable. Nevertheless, folks who are using them swear by them.

What's Required?

A true telepresence system that provides a near real-life experience has five requirements: high-definition, life-size video; camera technology that simulates eye contact; high-quality sound that allows movement and multiple conversations; a room design that simulates an in-person meeting; and enough bandwidth to avoid jitters and screen jumps.

All systems that you connect in should meet these requirements. If they don't, users on the lower-quality system, at best, will end up only able to passively listen in. At worst, they could drag down the quality of the entire system. It's not unusual to have two sites collaborating fine, but add a third, below-par site and there's a pixilated jerk screaming "What'd he say?" every five minutes.

"A telepresence system is more akin to a new building project than a technology initiative," says Bill Galinsky, CA's VP of global infrastructure. CA is a longtime user of videoconferencing systems, with more than 2,800 units in place--everything from desktop video to telepresence.

To get a sense of the scope of these telepresence setups, think of building a data center that will be open to the public. You need to get your facilities group in lockstep with your infrastructure, server, and application teams, and make sure all the rules about usage, bookings, and meeting length are defined. Start early and identify any infrastructure or bandwidth gaps that need to be addressed. Focus on the entire video and voice path, everything from core switches and routers to your MPLS network.

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About the Author(s)

Michael Healey

Contributing Editor InformationWeek

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