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Telepresence: Hype or Revolution?

One of the hottest topics in Unified Communications is video, and specifically the high-definition, high-end experience known as telepresence. HP and Polycom make telepresence systems, but the concept really took off in the market when Cisco announced its version of the technology almost 2 years ago.To review, telepresence aims to create a remote meeting experience that is as close to being in the same room with everyone as possible. It is deployed in special rooms whose furniture, lighting and other effects exactly match the others in the network. The table you sit at is a half-oval that is mirrored on the other end, and remote participants are ranged in a multiple-screen display (3 is the most common number of high-def screens).

I've never heard anyone describe the experience in less than glowing terms. When Al Gore took part in a keynote session at VoiceCon Orlando last March, his praise for the system was effusive (and unprompted).

The first and most obvious criticism of telepresence is its price: A quarter of a million dollars is about par for the course to equip a single room, and you obviously need at least 2 of them for the system to be useful. That doesn't count the 15 Mbps (for 3 screens) of flawlessly-performing bandwidth that you'll have to contract for. There's often a managed service involved, and the cost can near $20K a month for this connectivity and management.

Still, international travel is expensive and getting more so; building a business case around travel avoidance isn't a particularly steep climb for a multinational enterprise. The question with video is always whether it actually will pre-empt travel. Some analysts say the issue isn't travel avoidance anyhow; it's improved collaboration, especially with overseas offices and partners where relationship-building is inherently more challenging.

The main issues around telepresence right now seem to be:

1.) Interoperability
2.) Technology substitution

The issue around interoperability is that there basically isn't any; a Cisco telepresence room can't talk to an HP room, for example. This is a classic scaling issue--if a single enterprise has just a handful of telepresence rooms, there's no problem being a single-vendor network. But if telepresence becomes more common, and you want to talk to any partner or customer in any part of the world, some level of multivendor interoperability is going to be needed.

"Technology substitution" centers around what's been called "telepresence lite." Some enterprises have tried to put in high-definition videoconferencing without going the whole hog for the environmentals and design that vendors like Cisco say are essential for successful telepresence meetings. I've seen a range of opinions on whether this is an effective strategy or a half-measure that accomplishes little or nothing.

Here are some resources at No Jitter where you can get more information on telepresence:

  • Network Design for Telepresence
  • The Emporer Has No Clothes: Does Telepresence Really Deserve a Premium?
  • Telepresence: The Next Generation
  • Why Is Telepresence Utilization Better?
  • Telepresence: It's Not That Expensive
  • Telepresence Misunderstood
  • How Effective is Telepresence?
  • Telepresence: Coming to a Hotel Near You

    And an in-depth feature:

  • Telepresence: Beautiful and Expensive