Cisco TelePresence: Not your average virtual meeting

Using a telepresence meeting room is like taking a step into the future. The technology creates near-lifelike virtual conferences, allowing people at opposite ends of the earth to communicate as if they were in the same room.

With traveling expenses rapidly approaching the absurd, companies are looking for alternatives to the "actually being there" type of meeting. That's where telepresence comes in. Telepresence is a suite of technologies that allow people to interact virtually, with an emphasis on being as realistic as possible. Earlier this year, TechRepublic contributor Deb Shinder wrote an overview of this technology in the post "Telepresence: The next best thing to being there."

Cisco's version of virtual meetings

I'd like to shed some light on Cisco's version of this amazing technology, having just completed training on TelePresence (Cisco uses a capital P). I've been in San Jose this past week under the careful tutelage of Roger McLain, of McLain Consulting, and Casie Lantz, of Ascolta Training (Cisco partner), learning how to install and maintain a TelePresence meeting room. Throughout the class it was easy to get excited about the technology, and it didn't take much imagination to visualize everyone using some form of telepresence in the not-too-distant future.

To prove my point, I'd like you to watch the Cisco video "Next Steps in Global Business." Or for the CSI:NY fans out there, a Cisco TelePresence suite was used in "Episode 415 of the fourth season." My personal experience with the technology has more than convinced me of its value. TelePresence definitely isn't just another video-conferencing system (remember this is Cisco) as the realism is striking. The system used in each of the videos was the CTS 3000, which is designed for use by up to six participants per room and depicted below (courtesy of Cisco):


Cisco also has versions such as the CTS 1000, shown below (courtesy of Cisco), which is sized for small group meetings and one-on-one conversations that take place in smaller satellite offices.


Also, the CTS 500, shown below (courtesy of Cisco), is designed for one or two users in a private office. I find the CTS 500 particularly interesting; it's easy to visualize this model being in everyone's home. It can function as both the main HD television and the family's telepresence endpoint, allowing communications with relatives and friends in a very realistic manner.


Realism starts with the room

In order to obtain this realism, Cisco's TelePresence requires the conference room to adhere to stringent acoustic and lighting requirements. Cisco has expended a great deal of effort to quantify what's required, and the result of that effort is what Cisco calls a Room Readiness Assessment. Trust me on the importance of this as Roger worked with the class for a whole day on how to analyze a potential meeting room. The following topics are some of the criteria examined in the assessment:

Lighting: Cisco has determined the optimal lighting requirements to portray the room and its occupants realistically. By using the room assessment, lighting engineers can develop a plan to remediate the room so it's within Cisco guidelines. Acoustics: This part of the assessment is the most in-depth and by far the most interesting. During the training, I was told to clap my hands in the classroom and once again in a TelePresence meeting room. Wow, the difference was dramatic. Roger mentioned that the main emphasis is on removing as much reverberation or echo as possible. Bottom line, Cisco wants the audio characteristics of every TelePresence room to emulate those of a high-end recording studio. Repeatability: I didn't feel repeatability was that important until I actually took part in a TelePresence meeting. I now understand why Cisco strongly suggests that the rooms involved in a TelePresence meeting look identical. It's to give the illusion that everyone is in the same physical room, allowing the participants to concentrate on the meeting and not the technology. Next up, network path assessment

It doesn't take much of a stretch to realize that this type of technology will need a bullet-proof network to handle significant streaming multimedia traffic. Again, Cisco has developed a very detailed network assessment procedure to guarantee that once in place the TelePresence endpoint will work correctly. Some of the service-level requirements are:

Latency: Less than or equal to 150 ms Jitter: Less than or equal to 10 ms Packet Loss: Less than or equal to .05 percent

The maximum bandwidth required is different for each system. For example, the CTS 1000 requires 5.5 Mbps when the video resolution is 1080p. The CTS 3000 requires 15.3 Mbps again at 1080p. I learned something quite interesting about streaming multimedia. Packet size and packets per-second are variable, depending upon the amount of video and audio activity. More movement results in larger packets or more packets per second. Cisco uses this knowledge to create special algorithms that deal with packet shaping, queuing, and policing, resulting in optimal bandwidth usage and more than adequate QoS.

Features specific to TelePresence

That's enough about the room, it's time to move on to the good stuff. Let's look at the actual system. All versions of Cisco's TelePresence have the following features:

Video displays: The system integrates 65-inch high-definition plasma displays using 720p or 1080p resolution. The CTS 1000 uses one display, while the CTS 3000 uses three. The CTS 500 uses a 37-inch LCD display in order to meet size and space constraints. The display size is important, allowing remote participants to appear as life-size images. HD cameras: Research has shown that having realistic eye contact is paramount to the meeting experience. With that in mind Cisco has developed its own high-definition camera systems (H.264) to provide that capability. Audio system: On that same note, the audio has to be spot on as well, allowing participants to use normal voices, sounding like a normal conversation with everyone in the same room. In order to precipitate this, the TelePresence has incorporated a very neat feature. TelePresence coordinates the audio so a remote participant's voice emanates only from the speakers located by the image of that participant. It may not seem like much, but this approach allows other participants to immediately recognize who is talking and direct their attention toward the image of that participant. Finally, the CD-quality audio system complies to G.711 and AAC-LD (22 kHz). Meeting invitation: To schedule meetings, TelePresence uses calendar invitations via e-mail to notify participants and coordinate with Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM). Keeping the process simple allows the participants to respond to a TelePresence meeting request in a familiar manner. Also, by synchronizing with CUCM, all that is required to start a scheduled meeting is the touch of a button. What's in store for Cisco TelePresence?

I've been in the IT industry for a long time and have been fortunate to earn a living working on networking products like those offered by Cisco. Therefore, visiting Cisco headquarters was an especially meaningful moment for me. Kevin Nguyen, a Cisco demonstration engineer, even gave us a tour of the Executive Briefing Center. I was grateful for the tour, and the idiom "kid in a candy store" comes to mind.

Whew, Cisco is not just about routers and switches to be sure. As we toured the various TelePresence meeting rooms, Kevin made mention about the next generation of TelePresence. It's simply amazing; for a glimpse into the future check out the YouTube video "Cisco TelePresence Magic," which features CEO John Chambers and Senior Vice President/General Manager, Emerging Technologies Group, Mathin De Beer.

Final thoughts

Telepresence is definitely a disruptive technology that will have a huge impact on how people around the world interact. I for one hope it will help eliminate confusion and misunderstanding among all of us global citizens.