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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The network is key

Networking has always been the Achilles' heel of traditional videoconferencing, and it's still a concern with telepresence. If the video isn't smooth and perfectly coordinated with the audio in real time, the whole system devolves to being just like traditional videoconferencing. That's important, says Ferguson. "With traditional videoconferencing, you can only sit there for about an hour. But with telepresence technology, a two- or three-hour meeting is quite reasonable," he says.

For these reasons, Teliris has chosen to run its systems over a dedicated proprietary network. This approach requires the company to manage its network at data centers in New York and London. "We have to have a dedicated network in order to achieve the low latency, high-bandwidth transmissions that telepresence requires," says Trachtenberg, who adds, "Unlimited time on the network is part of the package customers get when they sign up for VirtuaLive."

Customers schedule calls through a Web site managed by Teliris or make a telephone call to the company's "concierge" service to schedule time on the network. Both are available around the clock to accommodate the worldwide usefulness of telepresence systems.

Cisco uses a customer's own corporate network to carry its signal, according to Randy Harrell, director of product marketing. That's no surprise, given Cisco's basic router-based business, as it makes heavy use of a customer's internal bandwidth.

Scheduling is done through the conference-room scheduling facilities of Microsoft Outlook, which automatically slots the rooms to be linked into the conference. Initiating the conference makes use of Cisco's VoIP technology. A VoIP phone sits on the conference table and is used to dial in the other rooms in the meeting.

Making telepresence work requires a serious amount of bandwidth. According to Forrester's Dewing, these systems take as much as 45 megabits per second of capacity. "That makes the Teliris dedicated network approach attractive," he says, "because you want to have very high reliability supporting such an expensive system that will primarily be used by senior executives."

High traffic on a company's internal network or unscheduled downtime can give a telepresence system the same sort of reputation for unreliability that has so long been associated with traditional videoconferencing. "We just like the fact that the Teliris network is always going to be available," says Ferguson.

However, Wachovia's Kittridge says that reliability has not been a problem at his sites and reports 100% uptime for his Cisco installation. "I think you're going to see more voice and video signals going over corporate networks in the not-too-distant future," he says, "And network reliability keeps getting better."

Another issue with Cisco's present networking approach is that it is confined to in-company conferences; however, the company is working on a solution with major telephony carriers. The plan is to build out what is being called the Cisco-Certified TelePresence Network. Based on the Session Interface Protocol (SIP) currently in wide use in real-time messaging standards, it will ultimately become a public switched network to be used for Cisco's TelePresence systems on an intercompany basis.

Greater interoperability

Generally, telepresence systems use at least some proprietary video and other multimedia technology, and some operate on proprietary networks. But in early June, Teliris launched its Telepresence Gateway, which it claims is the first product that allows interoperation between competing telepresence systems. The gateway now enables VirtuaLive customers to connect to Tandberg and Polycom systems, but Teliris plans to extend the list to Cisco, HP and other vendors' telepresence systems. Forrester's Dewing sees the Telepresence Gateway as a first step toward some sort of industrywide standardization.

Telepresence Gateway can also communicate with traditional videoconference technologies, such as those offered by Polycom, and Web conferencing technologies such as WebEx and Microsoft's LiveMeeting. Teleris also offers WebConnect, a Web-based telepresence product that enables a conference participant who is unable to be at a VirtuaLive-equipped site to join a conference. As Dewing points out, you don't need expensive telepresence for applications like telecommuting, but linking traditional systems into telepresence systems can give those applications a boost.

The bottom line

So, how many companies are actually buying telepresence systems? Cisco's Harrell wouldn't share numbers but said that the company's TelePresence systems sales are growing far more rapidly than the company had expected. For its part, Teliris claims that its customers added 50 new telepresence rooms in the second quarter of this year, and now has customer installations in 20 countries.

Well and good, but what is the real potential of telepresence? According to Dewing, it could be large, but the gating factor is cost. "The systems are currently used mostly at the executive level, but that's starting to change," he says, "and they'll actually get into widespread use once the cost comes down from the present lofty levels."

How far down can they really go, given the reliance on custom technology? Dewing thinks more standards will emerge, as well as the technology to go with them. "It'll never get to $10,000 per room," he says, "but it will come down a lot."

John Dickinson has worked in the computer industry for nearly 40 years in positions ranging from systems analyst and software engineer to editor, writer, critic and industry analyst.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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