Innovation

Telepresence: The next best thing to being there

Many companies have not yet joined the telepresence bandwagon yet, and many don't really understand the difference between telepresence and videoconferencing. Indeed, telepresence is the logical outgrowth of videoconferencing -- but it offers much more than just the ability to see the faces of those you're talking to in a little window on your computer.

In anticipation of the March 18 and 19 Telepresence World 2008 conference in London, market research firm Frost & Sullivan announced that it expects revenues for the emerging telepresence industry to increase by nearly 850 percent in the next five years. It predicts total world-wide revenues will be around $1.4 billion by 2013.

Many companies have not yet joined the telepresence bandwagon yet, and many don't really understand the difference between telepresence and videoconferencing. Indeed, telepresence is the logical outgrowth of videoconferencing — but it offers much more than just the ability to see the faces of those you're talking to in a little window on your computer.

What is telepresence, exactly?

At its most sophisticated, telepresence technology makes you feel as if you're actually in a remote location, rather than just interacting with someone in that remote location. The difference between videoconferencing and high-end teleconferencing is somewhat like the difference between watching a movie on a 25-inch television screen and watching it in high definition on a gigantic curved screen in a darkened theater with full surround sound.

With the former, you remain constantly aware of where you really are; the TV is only a small part of your environment. With the latter, you become completely immersed in what's happening on the screen; it is your environment.

Providing this sense of visual immersion in the remote environment obviously requires sophisticated (and expensive) video equipment. Some telepresence systems also incorporate 3D for even more realism.

But telepresence is about more than just large screens, visual tricks, and surround sound systems. Add to that the element of interactivity. The best telepresence systems let you do more than talk to those on the "other side" — they also allow you to control objects in the remote environment.

While we usually think of telepresence in the context of teleconferencing — remote meetings — it also has other purposes, such as a doctor remotely performing surgery from hundreds or thousands of miles away. In this case, the telepresence system incorporates remote robotics technology that allows the surgeon to control the precise movements of a robotic arm.

What does it cost?

It certainly sounds cool, but it also sounds costly. And it is — but it's gradually getting less so. According to Brad Reese's blog on Network World, Hewlett Packard has dropped the price of its Halo Telepresence system from $550,000 to $349,000. It also sports a less expensive model called Collaboration Studio, priced around $100,000 less at $249,000.

Brad notes that Halo uses a dedicated fiber-optic network with a 45-Mbps bandwidth guarantee. Of course, these systems are bandwidth hogs; creating the illusion of "really being there" requires a high-performance connection. Jerky video will pretty well destroy your sense of being on-site at the remote location.

Cisco's TelePresence 3000 top-of-the-line system costs a little less than HP's, coming in at around $300,000. In addition, it offers a bargain-priced (by telepresence standards, at least) lower-end system for around $80,000. (That's per-room pricing, by the way.)

Other leading vendors in the telepresence space include Polycom and Teleris.

Is it worth it?

Since deployment of a telepresence solution can be an expensive proposition, it pays to first conduct a thorough cost/benefits analysis to determine whether such a system fills a real need for your organization, how often you'll actually use it, and what the ongoing upkeep and maintenance costs will be (including bandwidth requirements).

The cost of a telepresence system may include the furniture, but it may or may not include items such as lighting, acoustics, and other considerations that are necessary to provide a realistic immersion experience. Some companies offer turn-key solutions — but even in that case, it's important to find out specifically what is and is not included in the price.

There's a fine line between low-end telepresence solutions and high-end videoconferencing. If a fully immersive experience is what you want, be sure that's what you're getting. It may be difficult or impossible to upgrade a videoconferencing solution to true telepresence later on.

Even given the high prices, if telepresence technology can substitute for traveling to meetings at remote locations — especially international meetings — it can quickly pay for itself in a world where fuel prices are constantly driving the cost of travel higher. Cisco has reportedly cut its company travel costs by 20 percent using its own telepresence technology within the company.

Telepresence as a service

The trend toward purchasing services instead of products has infiltrated the telepresence market too. If you only need to use it occasionally, it makes a lot more sense to rent a telepresence room for those occasions rather than investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in on-site hardware and software.

At the low end, FedEx Kinko's offers videoconferencing services at some of its locations. Hosted telepresence services are available from a number of vendors. 

Telepresence and UC

Today's telepresence technology marketed to the enterprise already combines VoIP, video, and data transmissions over a high-speed IP network. To be most effective, the telepresence system needs to integrate with other communications applications. For instance, Cisco's systems integrate with Microsoft Office so users can schedule meetings in Outlook.

In the future, we can expect even more integration, with increased ease of use and lower prices for telepresence equipment and services. At that point, we can expect "the next best thing to being there" to become a standard communications and collaboration method for businesses.

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About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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