Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

It's still not cheap, but telepresence technology takes videoconferencing a giant step forward. And did we mention that it's really cool?

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As you might imagine, all that equipment requires a dedicated conference room. Cisco TelePresence systems are modular -- currently the more widely used approach to telepresence, because the prebuilt telepresence modules can be stood up in any room large enough to house them. Cisco has gone so far as to build custom tables that physically connect to the screen banks, which makes the room look a bit like it houses a circular conference table.

The Cisco systems currently come in fixed configurations including either one or three screens, and the company now supports conferences between rooms with differing configurations.

Teliris VirtuaLive systems, on the other hand, are custom-designed for each room they will be used in and tailored to reflect what they will be used for. For example, some rooms are configured as conference rooms and others as classrooms.

A typical Teliris installation for a small conference room includes three screens for participants to interact on and an additional screen for displaying the presentations used in the meetings. The remote-participant screens are positioned across the conference table from the live participants.

"The presentation screen is situated so that remote participants turn in the same direction that local participants turn to see the presentation images," explains Teliris CEO Marc Trachtenberg. There is at least one camera and microphone per screen, with placement of the input devices carefully engineered for maximum dimensional realism, Trachtenberg says.

Other VirtuaLive conference room configurations include many more screens, and meetings can occur between VirtuaLive environments with differing numbers of screens, cameras, microphones and speakers.

A unique VirtuaLive feature allows for any number of Teliris-equipped conference rooms to participate in a single meeting. "We make it feel like a circle by vectoring the signals from the various rooms around a virtual table so that everyone sees each other naturally as if they were in the same room," says Trachtenberg.

It costs how much?

Telepresence is an expensive technology, and only enterprise customers with large travel budgets can afford it. Once installed, telepresence systems are essentially free to operate, but it's the installation that'll get you.

A single-screen Cisco TelePresence system can be installed for $79,000 and a three-screen system for $299,000 per room, according to David Hsieh, Cisco's director of marketing management. You have to multiply that by the number of rooms planned for the telepresence network.

Teliris VirtuaLive system costs are similar, with a single-screen room costing $60,000 and a four-screen room coming in at $250,000. Those costs include access to the Teliris dedicated network.

But analysts and customers who have bought telepresence systems think it's worth the cost. "The technology is really cool," says Forrester Research analyst Henry Dewing, "and it has the potential to fundamentally change how people view videoconferencing and how they do their work."

Teliris VirtualLive meeting room
A Teliris VirtuaLive telepresence system in action.
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