Midrange telepresence systems marry high quality with affordability

Plenty of small, geographically dispersed teams within large organizations can benefit from telepresence. The same holds true for small and midsized businesses. However, the technology may seem impractical for these scenarios, due to its notoriously high price.

Whereas higher-end telepresence products do come with large price tag, some vendors also offer alternatives that deliver a similar, if not identical, face-to-face experience -- far more affordably. You won't get all the bells and whistles of a dedicated telepresence suite, but you may find these types of solutions can put a big dent in your travel budget while boosting productivity.

[ Learn more about the lay of the telepresence landscape. | How do these midrange telepresence systems compare to a managed alternative from Cisco? ]

I had a chance to test two affordable telepresence solutions, the Polycom QDX 6000 and the LifeSize Express 200. They both offer small, power-saving desktop hardware, television-like remote controls for simple operation, plus quality audio and video. For the lower price, Polycom's video is standard definition (wide screen), while LifeSize provides true high-definition pictures. On the flip side, Polycom works over marginal Internet connections and lets you connect more audio and video sources -- the main reason we rated it just slightly higher.

Polycom QDX 6000: Best value and performance at low bandwidthsThe Polycom QDX 6000 does not deliver high-definition video; that's reserved for the company's pricier HDX Series. Nevertheless, the system's wide-screen, DVD-quality (480p) images look great on large monitors.

Four more attributes make this system enticing: It's easy to set up and use; the $3,000 street price puts several units within buying reach; it's based on industry video standards (H.264, H.263, and H.261), so you can connect with partners that might have other vendors' hardware; and Polycom's own Lost Packet Recovery (LPR) algorithm delivers smooth video over slow or congested connections (as low as 256 Kbps).

I successfully tested a QDX 6000 by dialing in to an identical unit at Polycom (a cross-country hop over a relatively slow cable modem). Setup was simple, yet there are enough video and audio inputs and outputs to accommodate media-heavy meetings.

In the most basic scenario, you plug in the supplied wide-view camera and two wideband microphones, attach an Internet cable and power, and add your own wide-screen monitor (I used a Samsung 32-inch 6 Series high-definition LCD television connected using component video cables). With these five connections, the system was operational in less than five minutes.

Further, the main system, which can be placed on a table top or mounted in a rack cabinet, provides outputs for standard 4:3-format televisions and VGA computer monitors or projectors. Inputs from computers, other video cameras, VCRs, DVD players, and audio mixers are all accepted.

The system automatically gets an IP address and leads you through the minimum configuration steps to place a call, which is done from the remote control. More extensive system configuration, such as monitor setup and advanced network settings, is performed from a Web interface.

From start to finish, I was conferencing in less than 10 minutes. In everyday use, you should be able to call others and enter a secure conference in a few seconds.

I was impressed with several other aspects of the QDX 6000. To begin, the studio-quality camera's performance is amazing, with sharpness and low-light color quality found in video cameras that could cost $3,000 alone. The 12X optical zoom let me zero in on people or items on the desktop; zooming, panning, and tilting (using the remote) was extremely smooth and fast.

The compact remote control is equally easy to use because of clearly labeled buttons and on-screen prompts that are readable from across a room. For example, with one press you can store (or recall) up to 100 preset camera positions, select a video source, or view far and near sites side-by-side.

Alternately, a free Polycom application (People+Content IP) lets you display the screen of a Windows computer to meeting participants without plugging the video output of the PC into the Polycom QDS 6000 system. To use this feature, all I did was load the software, enter the name of the conferencing system and password, then press the Graphics icon on the remote.

The Polycom StereoSurround microphones produced CD-quality audio with very good spatial separation. There's automatic gain control and noise suppression, which eliminates the need to play with any settings.

My Comcast network speed is pretty bad (typically about 384Kbps to 512Kbps), so I didn't have to do anything special to test Lost Packet Recovery. With LifeSize and 5 percent packet loss, I saw broken video and artifacts. However, Polycom's QoS maintained clear video at the same 5 percent packet loss. LPR is especially beneficial for home workers or employees connected through wireless networks. Yet this feature could also prove essential for critical medical applications, such as where medical specialists would share X-rays or patient images.

Overall, with high-quality video and audio, multiple video inputs and outputs, and compatibility with other systems, the Polycom QDX 6000 delivered smooth and uninterrupted videoconferences. Sure, video on this model is standard-definition wide screen. But that's hardly a negative considering the low price, simplified installation, and performance at low bandwidths.

LifeSize: Express lane to telepresenceLifeSize offers four conferencing solutions, but all meet the company's criteria for telepresence: People need to appear life-size, in high-definition, full 30-fps video, but without a high price.

The product line starts with LifeSize Express 200 ($5,999 or $6,999), which I tested. The codec (main unit) is about the size of an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper and a little over 1 inch thick. LifeSize Team ($10,000) lets you add an additional HD camera. LifeSize Room ($17,000) ups video to 1080p quality. And the Conference solutions ($39,000 to $49,900), with four monitors, compete favorable with the HP, Cisco, and Teliris products -- but at one-tenth the cost.

Common across all LifeSize products is superb audio and video performance. Video starts at high-definition 1,280-by-720-pixel resolution over the open Internet (as long as you have between 1Mbps and 2Mbps bandwidth). Therefore, there's no incremental networking cost. Full-duplex, high definition audio (with echo cancellation) lets participants have natural conversations. Dual streaming permits sharing of a computer screen or other digital video source.

Unlike high-end solutions, which are sometimes too heavy to be installed in standard conference rooms, all LifeSize systems can be placed inside of any office space, with no special lights or other physical requirements.

Moreover, standards are extensive (H.261, H.263, H.263+, H.264, and H.239), so LifeSize systems can interoperate with most other standards-compliance conferencing systems, without a gateway.

Hooking up LifeSize Express 200's remarkably small codec is simple because the backplane is uncluttered, sockets are logically arranged, and the number of cables is kept to a minimum. I made five easy connections: power, network, camera, HD video monitor (using a single HDMI cable for both audio and video), and microphone pod. The just-released model I tested has a second HDMI output to connect another HD monitor (which is used to display content from a PC).

After making a few initial settings, such as creating a room password, via the remote control, I was ready to make my first call. In all, I went from unboxing to making my first call in about 15 minutes.

Advanced configuration is done from a Web-based management tool, which is localized for 14 languages. The context-sensitive user interface makes it easy to create address book entries (up to 1,000 local entries are possible), change video or networking settings, and perform other similar tasks.

The difference between the two Express 200 models is that the lower-priced unit has a fixed autofocus camera, while the more expensive system that I tested includes an upgraded PTZ camera. In quantity, its 10 presets (any combination of pan, tilt, and zoom settings) don't match the 100 you get with the Polycom QDX 6000 but should be ample for most situations. Moreover, LifeSize camera's autofocus worked quickly and reliably.

Compared to the Polycom system, the high-definition camera required more room illumination to produce a picture with natural-looking skin tones and moderate contrast. However, LifeSize pulled ahead in video quality. The true high resolution (even though it's limited to 720p) made a noticeable difference in picture clarity, especially when zooming in on small objects. People, too, appeared more realistic.

The system includes a single high-definition microphone (a dual MicPod is optional). With full-duplex audio, conversations were natural, with no echo.

The LifeSize Express interface that's displayed on a room monitor is aesthetically pleasing -- and performing common tasks didn't require more than one or two steps. For example, the main screen shows what the near camera is viewing along with options to place a call. Once you're in a call, the solidly constructed handheld remote is used to zoom the camera, take control of the far system's camera, and change video sources. As with the Polycom system, LifeSize also lets you control a lot of conference functions from the Web interface.

Naturally, HD video requires more bandwidth compared to standard definition. On many tests with my marginal cable modem connection, LifeSize automatically switched to a lower screen resolution to match available Internet speed; there are 50 resolutions for the best experience at any bandwidth. But when I was able to coax enough bandwidth for high-definition video, the experience was definitely very immersive.

Next, using the Web interface, I made appropriate directory entries for non-LifeSize systems that used other standards, such as H.323 video phones. LifeSize Express didn't have any trouble connecting to these systems.

On the security side, the Web interface let me disable HTTP, SSH, and Telenet services. Privacy of conferences is handled with H.235 encryption.

Overall, LifeSize Express 200 has a lot to love. The diminutive codec is quick to set up and reduces cable clutter. When there's adequate bandwidth, picture quality is outstanding. Using and managing the system, including connecting to standards-compliant competitors, requires minimal effort.

Yet this all comes with a price: the monetary cost and some of the flexibility you give up compared to Polycom's QDX 6000 (such as more video and audio inputs). For SMBs with the appropriate network infrastructure and the need for HD video, LifeSize is a wise choice. Yet for half the cost, Polycom makes a compelling argument, especially for organizations with a number of remote offices and home workers.

This story, "Midrange telepresence systems marry high quality with affordability" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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