Cisco enters videomeet mart

In its first foray into the videoconferencing market, Cisco Systems Inc. will announce two so-called telepresence systems that it said are capable of supporting conference-room-size areas.

Meanwhile, Pleasanton, Calif.-based Polycom Inc. will introduce a line of three high-definition videoconferencing systems designed to support telemedicine, education and other applications.

Polycom’s new HDX 9000 series ranges in price from US$13,999 to $19,999, plus $4,999 for an HD camera. Those costs are a fraction of the list pricing of $79,000 to $299,000 that Cisco has set for the TelePresence 1000 and TelePresence 3000, the two videoconferencing systems it is rolling out.

But Randy Harrell, director of TelePresence product marketing, said Cisco believes its technology will provide higher-quality performance than traditional room-based teleconferencing equipment does. Cisco claims that its video screen resolution is 1,080p in a progressive-scan format, about four times the quality of a standard interlaced TV and higher than the 720p resolution supported by Polycom’s new products.

Cisco built all of its videoconferencing components in-house, including an echo-canceling microphone, an HD camera, a plasma screen video display and a coder/decoder device that translates analog signals to digital ones and back again.

Harrell said it would cost about $250,000 to set up a conference room capable of handling virtual meetings for a dozen people. That price includes a three-display TelePresence 3000 system and a year of maintenance from Cisco.

Morgan Fisher, co-owner of Beth Melsky Satellite Casting in New York, has been running a beta-test version of a Polycom HDX 9000 for six weeks in conferencing studios in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago that advertising agencies and directors of television commercials use to cast actors.

Fisher said he is impressed by both the video and audio capabilities of the new technology. “I noticed a big difference with the HD,” he said. “It’s so much better than anything I’ve ever heard.”

Directors have told Fisher they can spot more subtle differences between actors with the HD system. “If you sit in a room and have a five-hour conversation but the lighting and acoustics are bad and you hear noise in the background, it taps the senses,” he said. “The same is true for videoconferencing if the screen and sound are not that crisp. Your brain tries to fill in the gaps, which can be very tiring.”

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research Inc. in Boston, said he went into a demonstration of Cisco’s products “really skeptical but came out a changed man. This is the first videoconferencing system I’ve seen that has the opportunity to change the way people interact with one another.”

But Kerravala noted that Cisco’s systems are “relatively expensive” and require the use of a specialized room.

Cisco’s strategy is somewhat similar to Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Halo program, under which HP offers videoconferencing links from studios that it designed in partnership with movie maker DreamWorks Animation LLC.

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