Cisco demos public rooms for telepresence

A room could cost $299 per hour

BOSTON -- Cisco Systems Inc. today announced the first telepresence videoconferencing rooms available for public use, demonstrating the technology simultaneously in four locations in India, the U.S. and the U.K.

Three of the four demonstration sites were retrofitted rooms in Taj Hotels in London, Bangalore, India and Boston.

The luxury hotel chain has decided to build the public videoconferencing rooms for business and guest use at rates starting at $400 an hour in the Boston location. Cisco said prices will vary from $299 to $899 an hour at various locations globally, depending on the number of users. The rooms can accommodate from one to 18 people.

Cisco has been selling four varieties of its TelePresence systems, including high-definition monitors, cameras and sound systems, to private organizations for two years. Many of those companies, including The Procter & Gamble Co., use telepresence technology to link up corporate headquarters with branch offices around the globe.

But the emergence of public telepresence rooms represents a new opportunity to expand the technology to a larger market, Cisco officials said. Just yesterday, Cisco CEO John Chambers predicted that videoconferencing will even be used on airplanes.

Wim Elfrink, Cisco's chief globalization officer, said having public telepresence rooms could help create new business models, including remote health care services that would make it possible for patients to visit with doctors remotely prior to making a long trip for treatment.

Elfrink, who spoke from Bangalore, said he conducts about 70% of his job interviews with telepresence tools. He has been using the technology for 18 months, including in his home in the Bangalore area. "The quality of telepresence is so good that I can look into your pupils and see sweat on the top of your head," he said.

Tata Communications Ltd. provided the networking technology to connect the hotels; it also provided the networking gear for Cisco's private telepresence setup at the fourth demonstration site, which is in Santa Clara, Calif. Tata and Taj Hotels are both part of the Tata Group conglomerate of 96 companies.

Public telepresence spaces are now open for business at Taj Hotels in Boston, London, Bangalore and Mumbai, and at Confederation of Indian Industry offices in Bangalore, New Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai, India. The Pierre hotel in New York, another Taj property, plans to have a public telepresence room open next year.

Tata Communications expects to open 100 additional public telepresence rooms by the end of 2009, said Peter Quinlan, senior director of managed telepresence for Tata Communications. Tata will work with a variety of hotels and companies, not exclusively with Taj Hotels, on the theory that more public telepresence rooms will increase the value of the others, he said.

David Gibbons, general manager of Taj Boston, said he can foresee hotel telepresence rooms being used by wedding parties to reach out to distant relatives who could not attend, and by businesses that do not have the high-end videoconferencing technology. The Taj Boston's telepresence setup is in a converted guest room on the eighth floor.

As the global economy continues to slow, Gibbons said the number of hotel visitors is expected to fall off, so the telepresence room could help bring in added revenue. While the hotel industry has expected to offer videoconferencing rooms for a decade, earlier offerings were not based on high-definition technology and did not provide the quality of experience hotel employees and guests wanted.

Elfrink said the slower economy will be a "big boost, actually" to Cisco's telepresence businesses. Meanwhile, Tata Communications Chief Operating Officer Vinod Kumar said that with the economic downturn, "we see the need for stepping up" the provisioning of more public telepresence rooms. "We will step on the pedal," he said.

Quinlan said that a big plus of the public spaces is that businesses can try out the telepresence experience before paying to build their own systems, which can range from $350,000 to $500,000, including audio-visual equipment and special furnishings and lighting. In addition, telepresence rooms might cost $5,000 per month for 15 Mbit/sec. network connections in the U.S. and up to $25,000 per month in some Asian countries.

An added incentive for first-time users is that Cisco's TelePresence offerings will interoperate with videoconferencing systems from five other vendors. The only requirement is the third-party technology rely on the H323 standard, officials said.

Nora Freedman, an analyst at IDC who saw today's demonstration, said a number of vendors are selling high-definition videoconferencing systems, but apparently none are setting up their systems in hotel rooms or other spaces that are available to the public. "This is the real, live, public suite," she said.

Polycom Inc. and Tandberg and other vendors offer room-size systems that use high-definition technology, and some had set up room-size systems for public use with older equipment. But there wasn't much demand for those systems, because they were in poor locations and it was hard to schedule times when they could be used.

Hewlett-Packard Co. provides a high-definition room-size telepresence technology called Halo and has announced public rooms equipped with the systems, but none of those rooms have been opened, Freedman said.

To use one of the new public rooms equipped with Cisco technology, users must set up an account online and reserve a room using a Web portal, phone, e-mail or fax, Cisco officials said.

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