Telepresence makes its mark

The promise of TelePresence — tools that allow one to feel as if in the presence of another person — has been complicated by a legacy of technologies and ideas unrelated to business experience. Instead, over time we’ve been exposed to a range of compelling fictions.

With TelePresence, the presence sensation is complete, and not specific to audio or video recognition. That said, it is generally allowed that TelePresence is a matter of degree. Present commercial offerings, for example, do not allow for a transfer of physical touch.

In the early going, one of the most famous of these technologies was the Sensorama. Developed in the late 1950s, the Sensorama was a multi-modal, mechanical device designed to improve the theatre-going experience. The virtual sensation of riding a bicycle, for example, was enhanced with 3D glasses, stereo sound, and even wind.

In recent years we have arrived at surround-sound and the impressive, dizzying experience of IMAX, as well as Star Trek’s famous holodeck, a fictional representation of a convincing holographic “reality” controlled by a computer. And, of course, there are the evocative virtual realities of on-line worlds such as Second Life.

The problem with all of these phenomena is that they aren’t designed to enhance communication within the context of what is recognizably real, meaning that they have little practical application for business. They are, first and foremost, forms of entertainment.

The reasons for this are obvious. The multi-point communication of a real experience, and the ability to create a sense of shared presence, require powerful distributed technologies and the means to connect them. The real has to be captured and communicated in a dynamic landscape, and for this to occur convincingly, data, voice and video capabilities must be at their best.

Proponents of TelePresence argue that today’s technologies are much more than souped-up videoconferencing, and a recent announcement that Cisco Systems made its first TelePresence sale to Rogers Communications has added some local buzz. Confidence is high; vendors are eager to get people into the studios to confirm that TelePresence is for real.

A recent trip to Cisco’s offices in downtown Toronto confirmed this. An hour-long TelePresence meeting with Cisco’s Calgary office went off without a glitch. The IP-PBX handled the job well, with only one or two instances of watery sound — Cisco’s proprietary technology for echo cancellation was up to the task. We were using the Cadillac of Cisco’s offering, the Cisco 3000, which sports a three-panel 65-inch plasma screen system.

During the meeting, Cisco confirmed that the Rogers deal was significant in more ways than one. Yes, a large Canadian corporation saw the value in TelePresence for internal use, but Rogers is also a potential channel partner in the Canadian market. Cisco, like HP with its Halo TelePresence offering, wants to team up with carriers and cable companies in order to drive business to large-enterprise accounts. Cisco is also partnering with third parties to gain more traction in specific sectors.

Earlier this year, outsourced workplace provider Regus Group announced it would install 50 Cisco TelePresence systems to assist its clients in saving on travel costs. Mike Adams, chief operating officer for Rogers, while being clear that there is at present no commitment, nonetheless admits to the possibility: “Could we be a channel? Yes. We have an interest in supporting the commercial customer base. This could be a package of products, done jointly, or with one party supporting the other.”

Adams feels that Canadian enterprises, many of which have significant travel expenses, have the infrastructure and cash to make TelePresence viable. However, Jayanth Angl, research analyst, Infrastructure for Info-Tech Research, is somewhat skeptical of Cisco’s claim that TelePresence represents a US$1 billion market over the next five years.

“Larger organizations can justify the cost due to flexibility and travel savings,” he says, “but for the majority of enterprises it’s not worth the cost to purchase and manage the bandwidth.”

As with so many cutting-edge technologies, the mid-market is the Holy Grail. Angl is quick to point out that there are disruptive companies out there, such as Telanetix. The vendor requires no upfront investment and sells its offering as a $1,000-a-month service. Teliris is also a player, and has recently announced that its TelePresence gateway can work with other vendors. As well, HP soon plans to enable video porting from Tandberg, one of the first players in this space.


The issue of interoperability is complicated by cost concerns. Polycom, who in May announced a partnership with Nortel, offers its RealPresence at the top end, seating 28 people and costing $600,000. Cisco’s three-screen offering, ideal for six people but capable of handling twelve, costs $300,000; its single-screen product comes in at $80,000. HP’s Halo, which was launched in late 2005 at $550,000 per studio, can now run in the low $300,000 range, particularly if more than one studio is purchased. Base option network and service fees for Halo run at $18,000 a month. Another Halo studio configuration will be announced this fall, with upwards of 100 studios in place worldwide by the end of 2007.

If the system does not promise a very real simulation of the presence of other individuals, it might not pass muster. HP can port Tandberg videoconferencing, and a company such as LifeSize Communications can push a $12,000 system with decent resolution at 30 frames per second, but these technologies may have difficulty creating the actual experience of presence. Here’s where Cisco’s system, which has video twice as clear as current HDTV and fits into a SONA strategy of offering QOS on a single integrated network, may have the edge.

Stefan Dubowski, Telemanagement Managing Editor at Decima Reports, sees Cisco’s deal with Rogers as essentially a huge beta test. “I think Rogers is on the right track with this system,” he says. “It will help them internally.”

Dubowski, like Angl, has tried Cisco’s system and has found it impressive. He says that “the ROI has to be a no-brainer for a company to go for this. Most companies probably have the broadband, although it will only be the large distributed enterprises that will jump on.”

They may have the broadband: at five megabits allocated for each screen Cisco has to do some due diligence before installing a system. And then maybe call in the sales team.

This brings us to important distinctions as to how HP and Cisco have built out their TelePresence solutions. Darren Podrabsky, a marketing manager for HP Halo, claims Halo has the edge because it is built on an end-to-end managed network. “The Halo Video Exchange Network circumnavigates the globe and is exclusively dedicated to TelePresence,” he says. “We are working with our telco partners to virtually guarantee service in Singapore, London, New York (and) even India and the Middle East.” By contrast, Cisco’s system runs on the public Internet.

Ronald Gruia, principal analyst and program leader for information and communication technologies at Frost & Sullivan, who has also seen a Cisco demo, agrees that the experience is convincing, but says that it will take some time to gain traction. Gruia echoed HP’s Podrabsky in saying that Cisco’s strategy may in part be to drive related business, thus leading to a multiplier effect.

“For every dollar worth of VoIP equipment there is a pull-through of three dollars on the data side,” says Gruia. “That’s why Cisco got into VoIP: VoIP is the gravy on top of the data. And for TelePresence, the multiplier is much higher than three to one.” That may be true, but the amount of money that can be saved through TelePresence is astounding, perhaps even incalculable.

“The travel savings are fairly obvious and easy to measure,” adds Podrabsky. “But that’s a small piece of the pie. The largest piece is when TelePresence results in companies being more efficient and bringing a product to market sooner.”

Podrabsky can speak from experience. “We have thirty Halo rooms within HP,” he says. “We reduced an inkjet project out of Singapore [in] six months. That’s six months faster to revenue for a product line.”

The caveat for that example, as for Cisco’s demo, is that at present we are not talking about a real B2B solution that can easily rope in suppliers and large customers. Synching with traditional videoconferencing is risky — the historical uptake has been slow — and providing real TelePresence in a B2B environment will require drastic overall price reductions. Either that, or the likes of HP and Cisco will extend discounted offerings to choice partners.

The issue is interoperability and QOS at the right price, and the market is most certainly not there yet. Podrabsky claims to have spoken to hundreds of customers that want to port to traditional videoconferencing end-points, but Cisco claims that its videoconferencing rooms were getting only five to 10 per cent utilization, compared with over sixty per cent for TelePresence.

It may be that, as with cell phone use, people will sacrifice some QOS for a viable experience. Tandberg’s codecs and partners have broad compatibility, and HP sees the partnership as able to drive more business in key verticals such as Financial Services.

“Time is money for them,” says Podrabsky. “They tend to be globally dispersed, and collaboration is central to how they do business.”

During the Cisco demo, Greg Masniuk, Cisco’s Regional Director for Western Canada, spoke convincingly of the system’s merit as a cost-saver, a green technology and a collaborative business tool applicable to numerous verticals.

He also emphasized work/life balance. “I’ve seen my daughter ride twice recently,” said Masniuk. “Without this system I’d have been in Toronto on business.”

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