Quantcast

Telepresence On The Horizon?

January 10, 2007

By Davis, Andrew W; Weinstein, Ira M

Recent product announcements by two IT heavyweights have rekindled the telepresence debate. The ripple effect is already being felt, but the long term results are anything but clear.

The resurgence of interest in telepresence began in early 2006 with HP’s announcement of its Halo system, a telepresence solution designed in conjunction with DreamWorks. A few months later, during 2Q06, Polycom joined the fray by announcing its RPX product line of telepresence suites, with expected deliveries to begin in 4Q06 or 1Q07. Around the same time, Cisco’s CEO John Chambers began talking about a telepresence system that his company would introduce before year-end.

While no details were forthcoming, the Cisco pre-announcement created fear, uncertainty and doubt in the minds of videoconferencing suppliers and buyers alike, while also creating new interest and excitement. The uncertainty was eliminated on Oct. 23, 2006 at the global launch of the Cisco TelePresence 1000 and 3000 systems.

The combination of announcements and press coverage, punctuated by a Wall Street Journal story on Sept. 28, 2006, has generated more customer inquiries at Wainhouse Research in a shorter period of time than any other development in the history of the videoconferencing industry. Never before have CEOs been as interested in videoconferencing as they appear to be today!

But despite the hype, the fact is that telepresence is not new. One of our associates saw his first videoconferencing telepresence demonstration in 1995. Multiple vendors, including Destiny Conferencing (formerly known as TeleSuite), DVE, Exovision, Telanetix, TelePortec and Teliris have been in this market for many years. But none of them have achieved any scale.

A fundamental business obstacle is that all the early suppliers mentioned are in the position of asking major corporations to buy very expensive and totally proprietary systems from tiny vendors in weak financial positions. It is no wonder that telepresence has achieved little market penetration.

Adding to the confusion: There isn’t any accepted industry definition of telepresence. A common question asked of Wainhouse Research is, “What is the difference between videoconferencing and telepresence?” We believe there is a fundamental difference in the environment and the sensation of immersion that distinguishes a telepresence solution from one that would be considered videoconferencing. Our definition:

Telepresence: A videoconferencing experience in which the users feel like the remote participants are in the same room.

The Telepresence Design Envelope

In designing a telepresence solution, engineers have focused on three factors that they believe are critical to achieving customer acceptance:

* High quality audio and video: In order to provide the realism users expect in a telepresence meeting, the audio and video must be clear, with no noticeable delay. Realism is optimized when the images are life-size, when the gaze angle between the camera and the remote video is minimized, and when the audio provides directional cues as to who is speaking. The face-to-face experience is also maximized when the technology is hidden; i.e., cameras, speakers and microphones are nearly invisible.

* Simplicity: The intended audience for telepresence solutions is CXOs and senior level managers with little interest in operating complicated communication devices, and even less interest in looking clueless in front of their peers when trying to set up video calls or fix problems. For this reason, telepresence solutions must be extremely easy to use (one button to push) or offered as a totally managed solution (theoretically with zero buttons to push).

* Reliability: When groups of senior managers meet, even short delays to get the call running can be frustrating as well as expensive in time wasted.

Many telepresence systems go a step further, with the vendors becoming heavily involved in room design. The reasoning is that when the chairs, tables, background, and even the color of the walls in the remote room are the same as those in your room, it is easier to get the “telepresence feeling” that the remote colleague is indeed in the same room with you.

As is the case with any engineering design, compromises are involved.

1.) Telepresence systems designers have had to abandon previous cost constraints-these systems are expensive.

2.) Most use proprietary audio-video algorithms to maximize quality, resulting in high WAN bandwidth requirements and little interoperability. Most of the systems in the market today, in fact, cannot communicate at all with systems from any other vendor.

Any enterprise considering a telepresence investment should carefully consider many factors surrounding the vendor (stability, customer references, support capabilities) as well as around the solution. Five of the top technical factors include:

* Video quality: Many (but not all) of the systems today are moving to high-definition (HD), providing superior detail compared to standarddefinition television. Some compression algorithms have been optimized to reduce delay, a key parameter to enabling “natural” conversations. Many people feel it is important to the experience that remote participants appear life-size, but not all systems can do this.

* Eye contact: If the distance between the camera lens capturing your face and the eyes of the remote participant on your local display is relatively large, then the remote participant will have the feeling that you are not looking directly at him during the meeting. This is known as the gaze angle problem (angle can be horizontal or vertical), and a large gaze angle can significantly detract from the meeting experience (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1 Gaze Angle

Eye contact instills trust and fosters an environment of cooperation and partnership, while the lack of eye contact can generate feelings of negativity, discomfort or distrust. Providing naturalfeeling eye contact during a videoconference requires that the participants look almost directly into the camera. Unfortunately, videoconferencing often fails in this regard because participants tend to look at the video image of the remote person, and not at the camera.

* Audio quality: Wideband audio provides a significant improvement over narrowband audio, increasing clarity dramatically while decreasing “meeting fatigue.” Separate from audio bandwidth is the issue of multi-channel audio. Multi-channel audio combined with multiple speakers contributes to the realism by providing spatial hints about the speaker’s location, but is technically complicated because of the need for multi-channel echo cancellation. Different systems vary widely in their audio capabilities, and we recommend that users experience the sound as part of their decision-making process.

* Bandwidth requirements: Most traditional business videoconferencing today takes place at a connection rate of 384 kbps, a legacy from the days of ISDN communications. While many companies have migrated to IP video, few conduct videoconferences over IP at more than 768 kbps.

Telepresence systems today, in contrast, typically run over dedicated IP links, and bandwidth requirements range from 1.5 Mbps to more than 24 Mbps per session, depending on a variety of factors. The result is that few IT departments can (or want) to run telepresence over the corporate IP network; instead, an overlay IP network strategy is preferred. This can add considerably to the monthly operating costs.

* Multipoint support: Not all meetings are point-to-point. Sometimes conferences involve 3 or 4 sites, or even higher. Not all telepresence systems can support multipoint operations.

Four other distinguishing factors between vendors’ solutions might be considered under the category of user preferences, including:

* Dedicated room designs: Several systems on the market are delivered in a “room within a room” form factor. With this design, the customer provides space, and the vendor comes in with a kit and builds a complete telepresence room within that space, walls and all. In the extreme case, the kit requires only a power connection and a network drop. Other systems are designed to be installed in standard conference rooms. Which design type is better suited for your organization depends upon your environment and budget constraints. Furthermore, some designs use special tables and room layouts that work well for telepresence sessions, but are far from ideal for in-person meetings.

* Bundled services: Some telepresence solutions may bundle in a variety of services including equipment installation and maintenance, call launch and management, and network services. Customers need to consider how the telepresence suite may fit in with their existing network provider contract, conferencing managed services organization, and/or internal IT support team.

* Interoperability: Maintaining all the elements needed to support telepresence generally means limiting communications to telepresence rooms from the same vendor. But some systems will support connections to the industry-standard (H.323) systems that have been widely deployed for t\he past decade. True, connecting at low bandwidth to a standard system will sacrifice the telepresence experience, but this situation may be preferred to not being able to connect at all.

* Price: Typical group videoconferencing systems today (codec, camera, microphone, speaker, display, cart) range in price from $8,000 to $18,000 (U.S. MSRP), with some high-end systems approaching $28,000. Telepresence rooms, on the other hand, range from $80,000 to $400,000 and up, depending upon whether extensive room enhancements are needed prior to installation. Because of their high up-front costs and operating costs, telepresence systems are likely to remain an industry niche suitable only for large enterprises for quite some time.

Tolopv esonco Vendors

Cisco

In October 2006, Cisco introduced the Cisco Telepresence 1000 ($79,000 MSRP) that accommodates two people per system, and the Cisco Telepresence 3000 ($299,000 MSRP) that accommodales six people per system. No monthly operating fee is required.

CTM is based on all-Cisco, all-proprietary technology. Highlights include 1080p ultra-high-definition video and 4-channel spatial audio. Cisco supports only two locations (point-to-point) per session today, but the company has announced that it will release multipoint support in 2007.

The user interface is simplicity itself. Setting up a meeting is as easy as creating a standard meeting using the calendar function in either Outlook or Lotus Notes. Thanks to the integration of Exchange/Domino with Cisco Unified CallManager 5.1, users can launch their previously scheduled telepresence call with the touch of a button on a Cisco 7970 IP phone. In addition, users can dial any other Cisco TelePresence room directly, just like placing a regular phone call. We believe the only user-controllable setting is the speaker volume.

Like other telepresence vendors, Cisco uses the concept of a table segment as a basic unit. A table segment might be thought of as including two chairs, a camera, display and sound peripherals. The way the overall system is architected, two people will appear life size on the 65-inch display. And the sound coming from the left will be associated with the video on the left. In a future multipoint implementation, it is the segments that will get switched. So, in a 3-screen room you might be looking at two screens from Denver and one screen from Tokyo if Tokyo was the last person to speak. And switching should add negligible latency compared to mixing and/or transcoding video.

With the release of its telepresence solution, Cisco has entered the meeting room furniture business. CTM furniture and optics have been designed to give the illusion that the table continues across the screen-a key component for true telepresence vs. normal high- end videoconferencing. In the 3000 system, three cameras are installed in a central housing near the top of the center screen, an approach we believe sacrifices horizontal gaze angle significantly.

DVE

Since the early 1990′s California-based Digital Video Enterprises (DVE) has been conducting extensive R&D in the field of “true eye contact” videoconferencing, resulting in over 10 patents. The true eye contact is achieved by incorporating beam-splitter technology into the display device and then mounting the video camera directly behind the display. The result is that when local users look directly at the display showing the remote participants, they are looking directly into the camera, thus providing true eye contact for those at the far end sites.

The company delivers videoconferencing systems in a multitude of small and large form factors using codecs from other manufacturers.

HP

Hewlett Packard’s Halo Collaboration Studio is a “room in a room” solution including three video screens and one data screen. The system uses three 3CCD cameras (one located above each video screen) and a high-performance MPEG codec using about 8 Mbps per video connection (or 24 Mbps per telepresence session).

By installing a camera above each screen, HP avoids the horizontal gaze angle issue that plagues several other telepresence solutions (Cisco, Destiny Conferencing/Polycom) and provides solid eye contact.

In addition, the use of the Halo conferencing network (a high- QOS overlay network managed by HP) provides a high-reliability, ‘low- delay meeting experience. Halo also includes a turnkey managed service offering including room and system maintenance/upgrades and a concierge (call scheduling and launching) service.

In mid-2006, HP enhanced its Halo product line by

1.) dropping the per-room price from $550,000 to $425,000 (the monthly service/maintenance fees still run about $18,000 per month per system); and

2.) adding support for up to 4-way multipoint. HP’s multipoint support is unique in that it allows the participants to choose between a 4-seat per location or 2-seat per location multipoint layout, although the 4-seat setting means that the remote meeting participants are displayed smaller than life size on the screen.

Polycom/Destiny Conferencing

Although the company has stepped through different company names over the years, Destiny Conferencing’s TeleSuite telepresence solution has been on the market since 1999, making it the grand- daddy solution of the telepresence industry. The solution comes in 2- and 4-screen versions that seat between 4 and 40 (or more) meeting participants. While most other systems use flat screen (LCD or plasma) displays, this solution’s use of rear-projection technology allows the screens to be placed directly next to each other, with almost no gap between the displays.

Like the Cisco and Telanetix solutions, the Destiny Conferencing solution includes a multicamera assembly positioned in the center of the displays, which provides strong vertical but limited horizontal eye contact. Unlike most other telepresence solutions, this system is based on a standards-based codec (Polycom’s VSX-7000) and supports calls with any H.323 or SIP-based video system.

In 2006, Polycom formed an alliance with Destiny in order to take advantage of Destiny’s experience in room design, integration and multi-camera meeting support. The result of this partnership is Polycom’s RPX solution, which is based on Destiny Conferencing’s TeleSuite offering, but includes several key upgrades such as HD resolution, an integrated Crestron control panel, and enhanced audio.

Both Destiny Conferencing’s TeleSuite and Polycom’s RPX are available with a full suite of managed services, including network services, sourced either from the vendor directly or from the value- added reseller/integrator. System costs range from $250,000 to $559,000 with monthly recurring fees of roughly $8,000 (including network).

Teliris

Teliris has probably installed more systems to date than any other telepresence vendor. The company offers a complete line of standard-definition and high-definition systems in both dedicated and non-dedicated telepresence room options.

The VirtualLive HD Modular system, for example, is an easy-to- install solution that does not require significant changes to existing conference rooms and therefore retains the existing look and feel of a company’s meeting environment. The standard system consists of three video displays plus a presentation display and integrated audio conferencing that can support up to four simultaneous locations. Where more locations or participants are the norm, additional display modules can be added to the system.

Teliris has developed a proprietary Virtual Vectoring technology that creates a more realistic orientation; each location sees images in the way that they would see them from their vantage point if they were physically in the room. This is married to directional sound as well.

Telanetix

Telanetix Digital Presence Systems are available in 2- and 4- screen configurations and include support for multi-location (up to 8) calling and data sharing. The solution uses the company’s proprietary Linux-based MPEG video codec which, according to Telanetix, provides a combination of high performance and cost- effective scalability.

While the company provides a complete set of tools, integration and final configuration are largely left to the channel partner. Telanetix products are sold through a network of audio-video resellers with 39 sales offices in the U.S. and five regional demonstration facilities.

Telepresence Market Impact

The entry of Cisco and HP into the high-end videoconferencing business has certainly had an impact on the market. With their access to C-level executives, HP and Cisco have already caused a shift in the “decision making unit” for visual communications.

Wainhouse Research has fielded numerous calls from videoconferencing managers telling us, “My CEO saw a telepresence sales pitch and is asking me why we don’t have one of these.” It appears that telepresence decisions are being made by the same team that selects the corporate Gulfstream jet. We suspect that 6-9 months from now, many video resellers, typically selling to videoconferencing management personnel, may visit with their key accounts and find themselves confronted with fully-installed telepresence systems that they had no idea were even being considered.

Telepresence solutions will match certain niche market opportunities well. For example, an enterprise with a small number of headquarters sites (NY, London, Tokyo) conducting frequent meetings between high-level executives in those sites will find telepresence an attractive alternative to airline travel. In addition, those involved in telemedicine and education may find that the telepresence experience changes the learning environment. But any enterprise with dozens of remote offices, manufacturing plants or partner operations will likely find the high initial cost and limited interoperability to be major stumbling blocks to serious consideration.

The truth is that telepresence shows just how good a videoconfer\encing experience can be. And the Cisco and HP marketing muscle is likely to raise the fortunes of many involved in telepresence and high-end videoconferencing. We believe that many savvy customers will find that a knowledgeable systems integrator using a high-definition videoconferencing system from LifeSize, Polycom, Sony or Tandberg may be able to deliver the vast majority of the telepresence benefits at a small fraction of the cost, while also providing interoperability with installed systems.

Despite the hype, telepresence does not change the four long- standing elements needed for videoconferencing adoption:

* Voice quality equal to or better than the telephone.

* Video quality that adds to the communications experience, not detracts.

* Strong ease-of-use and reliability, thereby eliminating the need for in-room support staff

* Interoperability and ubiquitous access that allows a video site to call many other video sites

In short, telepresence should drive interest in videoconferencing overall, improve the efficiency of a lucky few users, and drive market growth for many within the marketplace.

Caveat emptor

Note: Wainhouse Research (www. wainhouse.com) will be publishing a full report on telepresence systems during 4Q06

Bandwidth demands mean telepresence will usually require Its own dedicated IP network

Telepresence costs can total $400,000 and up

Cisco and HP have pushed decision-making up the corporate ladder

Many enterprises will use high-end video-conferencing to gain telepresence benefits at a fraction of the cost

Companies Mentioned In This Article

Cisco (www.cisco.com)

Destiny Conferencing (www.telesuite.com)

DVE (www.dvetelepresence.com)

Exovision (www.exovision.com)

HP (www.hp.com)

Polycom (www.polycom.com)

TelePortec (www.teoeportec.com)

Teliris (www.teliris.com)

Telanetix (www.telanetix.com)

Andrew W. Davis is the managing partner with Wainhouse Research. He can be reached at andrewwd @wainhouse.com. Ira Weinstein is an analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research and can be reached a iweinstein @wainhouse.com.

Copyright CMP Media LLC Dec 2006

(c) 2006 Business Communications Review. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.




comments powered by Disqus