Telepresence: Almost Like Being There

By Lawrence Walsh  |  Posted 2007-12-07 Print this article Print

No longer a closed loop, Cisco's ground-breaking technology is now open to enterprises who want to use it in intra-network connections. Now, executives can meet with suppliers, partners and customers any time, any where. Can the telepresence home be far b

The hallway leading to a bank of conference rooms at one of Cisco Systems' sprawling campuses in Silicon Valley was as opaque as any corridor tech building. White walls dotted with plastic plaques identifying each room with a name that's only significant within the company.

When my escort and I entered the last room at the end of the narrow stretch, we were greeted by another Cisco employee who was hiding away in the empty room to eat chicken salad out of plastic container within inches of some of the most expensive equipment on Cisco's line card.

That was probably appropriate, given the utilitarian purpose of telepresence. No sooner had the dinner departed the room did three giant monitors come to life with the tap of a LCD button on a Cisco phone. It was truly unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

If you haven't seen the Cisco telepresence technology up close and personal, it's probably because of the price tag: $300,000 per installation. And you just can't buy one; You need at least two to talk.

At least you did until recently.

Cisco is opening up its telepresence technology, enabling connections that extend outside the host network. What this means, is the technology may one day become as pervasive as telephones.

OK, let's take a step back and dive a little deeper into what we're talking about.

Everyone has at least heard of telepresence or video conferencing. Cisco doesn't appreciate the comparison to video conferencing over IP networks, since they claim a much higher level of sophistication. I was one of those who didn't see a difference in telepresence and video conferencing until I actually saw one of these units in action. This technology goes far beyond anything you can do with a Web camera and a P2P connection.

The video conferencing I've seen in the past was little more than close-circuit cameras with low resolution and horrible audio. The three 1080 dlp monitors and calibrated video cameras create such a realistic, panoramic effect that the people I met with appeared more realistic than Angelina Jolie in Beowulf. In fact, Cisco went to great trouble to design realism into the system, including matching tables on either end of the connection to create a sense of continuity.

Telepresence has all sorts of neat features that you can't find in conventional video conferencing, such as: Spatial awareness audio that can track a speaker's movement around the room, back lighting to eliminate facial shadows, and integration with Microsoft Outlook and Cisco's telephony to make scheduling and session initiation a snap. In the 13 months since Cisco rolled out telepresence internally, it claims to have held more than 40,000 meetings across its 150 nodes—all with zero user training.

"You get the logical equivalent of a long distance phone call," said David Hsieh, marketing director of Cisco's emerging technology division, over the telepresence connection.

Now, this probably sounds good—short of the high price tag—except for one obvious drawback: the closed network architecture. While Cisco itself is adding two to three telepresence nodes to its network at locations around the world each week, relatively few other enterprises have adopted the technology. Price may be part of it, but the other part is its limitations to operating only on a closed network.

That's changing with Cisco's opening of telepresence technology to enable intra-network connections. This means Cisco telepresence users can communicate with their partners, suppliers and customers around the world—any time, any place—with the same efficiencies and experience as if they were physically there regardless of the host network.

"The quality of the experience lets you re-engineer business processes and people," Hsieh said.

And that's the magic of telepresence. Some may not think that a video connection is any different than a conference call or Webinar, but the experience of virtually being in the same room with the people you're meeting with changes the dynamics of the conversation. Participants can share documents, show PowerPoint slides, white board ideas and, in many cases, make a personal connection.

Cisco cites several examples of how early adopters are using telepresence to expedite collaboration amongst business partners and internal development teams. One European retailer, Cisco says, is using telepresence to speed its expansion into Eastern Europe. It's setting up telepresence centers in each country to avoid having to send training teams to each country. Instead, the retailer is able to keep its trainers at home base, and train local employees at multiple centers at the same time, saving both time and money.

Opening telepresence to intra-network communications may accelerate the adoption of this technology. Proctor and Gamble has committed to deploying 50 telepresence rooms across its network and link connections to key vendors and suppliers to speed product development and launches – particularly in emerging markets such as China, India and Russia.

"If you can bring a new version of Tide to market six months earlier, you're talking a huge amount of money saved," Hsieh said.

It's not hard to get caught up in the Cisco hype for telepresence. Hsieh is enthusiastic about the applications of telepresence in remote medicine, entertainment, travel, and personal communications. Cisco CEO and chairman John Chambers already had unit installed in his house and head of global channels Keith Goodwin has one in his personal conference room.

"Over the long term, we can make life-like video a pervasive part of everyone's life," says Hsieh.

With a six-figure price tag, telepresence is a toy only in reach of enterprises. Even they have a bit of a hard time coughing up the dollars for a productive installation that they're taking money out of their travel budgets to pay for it. There's a reasonable ROI in using T&E to pay for telepresence, since it does—in theory and practice—reduce the time executives and employees spend on the road.

In the more immediate future, Cisco envisions a network of public telepresence centers springing up across the country. Soon enough, you may be able to go to your local Kinko's, Staples or, perhaps an airport lounge for a pay-per-play telepresence center. "Any place where people congregate is a natural location for us," Hsieh says.

Perhaps. But as prices come down and units become smaller (the current standard version is comprised of three 40-inch high-definition monitors), the public telepresence centers may rise and fall as quickly as Internet cafes. In the end, that may be a good thing, since it would mean innovation and evolution of a technology designed to save time and operating expenses.

And market forces and competition will have an impact on pricing and availability. Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have similar and divergent visions for telepresence, which will create pressure for lowering prices and increasing availability. The adoption of competing platforms will eventually create a need for harmonizing standards for interoperability.

How big will telepresence be? It was created by Cisco's emerging technology division, which operates under the mandate of finding and developing new technologies and market opportunities that have a minimum $1 billion return within five to seven years. Obviously, they're hoping not to have to wait that long.

Lawrence Walsh Lawrence Walsh is editor of Baseline magazine, overseeing print and online editorial content and the strategic direction of the publication. He is also a regular columnist for Ziff Davis Enterprise's Channel Insider. Mr. Walsh is well versed in IT technology and issues, and he is an expert in IT security technologies and policies, managed services, business intelligence software and IT reseller channels. An award-winning journalist, Mr. Walsh has served as editor of CMP Technology's VARBusiness and GovernmentVAR magazines, and TechTarget's Information Security magazine. He has written hundreds of articles, analyses and commentaries on the development of reseller businesses, the IT marketplace and managed services, as well as information security policy, strategy and technology. Prior to his magazine career, Mr. Walsh was a newspaper editor and reporter, having held editorial positions at the Boston Globe, MetroWest Daily News, Brockton Enterprise and Community Newspaper Company.

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