Phone promises to give office workers better face time

Videophones date back at least to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, but have yet to catch on in the office.

That has a lot to do with the expense, but it also with the poor resolution of “eyeball” cameras mounted on top of desktop monitors, which do little to flatter the subject. They look even worse on a high-resolution big-screen telepresence system.

Tandberg believes the way to deal with that is to improve the camera. Today it said it will release early next year a voice over IP desktop phone with a 10.6-inch LCD screen and a camera capable of DVD-quality images.

“We’re re-inventing the deskphone,” said Peter Nutley, director of global marketing, who said the goal is not merely an exclusive device but to take “video to the masses.”

To be called the E20, the phone will have a list price of US$1,499, which will be $500 less than the Tandberg 150 video-VoIP phone (also sold by Cisco Systems) with a smaller screen it succeeds. Nutley said users of the current model wanted a more robust VoIP phone with better hard and softkeys. Tandberg’s goal, he said, was to create a high-end phone which also has high-quality video. The main use of the E20 will not be person-to-person calls but to groups using a large telepresence screen, he said.

As a result, he claimed the 768 x 448p image created by the 5 megapixel camera will look good even on a 50-inch monitor. The E20 is shaped like an upside down “Y.” One leg is the back support, one leg has the keypad and speakers and the long stem holds the widescreen LCD monitor. Because it is relatively tall for a desktop phone, the camera on top is closer to eye level than cameras on most smaller deskphones and therefore avoids the “up the nose” shot, Nutley said.

Tandberg spent a lot of time redesigning the E20’s interface to make it more intuitive, he said. As a result the company believes “no training would be required” of staff getting the device.

Jayanth Angl, an analyst with Info-Tech Research of London, Ont., said that so far desktop video hasn’t been widely deployed in North America, although manufacturers are pushing it as a good solution for enterprises with widely-distributed staff. While many executivies are cautious on video, it could be an answer to meeting where audio conferencing isn’t enough, he said.

However, he also said that “it’s just a matter of time” before desktop video becomes common in many organizations. For one thing, he said, video capability is a central part of many unified communications solutions being pushed by everyone from Avaya to Microsoft.

Nutley estimated that on average 10 per cent of people in a 500-person organization would use a videophone. The company has a number of clients who have thousands of them, he said.

The E20 is priced to be “not much more” than a high-end VoIP phone, he said. Any company with a VoIP infrastructure would be able to add it, he said.

However, he did acknowledge that video will add significantly to the network’s bandwidth. A video call will take 512 kilobits, he said, compared to 64 kb for a voice call.

The E20 can connect to Tandberg’s Video Communications Server or any SIP-based PBX, and Tandberg hopes that soon after the unit’s release it will have plug-and-play certification from a number of manufacturers. It has a 1Gb Ethernet connection to the network, or, through an internal switch, can be connected to a personal computer, and then to the PBX. There’s also an RJ11 jack for a high-quality headset for using the E20 in a call centre.

The unit also comes with Bluetooth capability for wireless headsets, although that won’t be switched on in the initial model.

Tandberg will take orders for the E20 in October, with the unit shipping in the first quarter of 2009. The company also announced two other products for video communications. One is a new video distribution appliance aimed at integrators and organizations building telepresence systems, while the other is the company’s first system built around a 65-inch LCD display.

The Codec C-90 is a compression engine that delivers up to 1080p video and supports up to 12 high-definition inputs such as cameras or DVD players. It also has inputs for stereo eight microphones. The 2U high, rack-mountable unit, starts at US$36,900, will be available in the fourth quarter.

The US $69,900 T1 telepresence system bundles the C90, a 1080p camera and a 65-inch LCD display. It will be available in the fourth quarter.

Tandberg’s previous biggest monitor was a 50-inch plasma screen.

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