As good as being there

As good as being there

He's not exhausted or drained, as he can be after some phone meetings and videoconferencing sessions. He has just finished face-to-face meetings with a pack of business partners, gaining instant feedback and looking them straight in the eye to gauge their response to his proposal. And yet those partners were in different offices all over the world.

Welcome to telepresence - a set of technologies that allows people to interact as if they were in the same room when it is not possible in reality. Dimension Data Australia chief marketing officer, Gerard Florian, said the emerging technology takes videoconferencing to the next level. The video market, with telepresence as one piece of the puzzle along with video streaming, is becoming a growing area of opportunity for DiData.

The integrator recently completed a telepresence installation at the Cisco office in Sydney. Florian predicted telecommunications companies and multinationals would be the early adopters of this technology.

"With videoconferencing, from a sheer quality point of view, there's a period where it becomes draining on the body," he said. "The image is smaller and it feels like you're sitting on an audio conference all day, which is exhausting."

Telepresence, on the other hand, dishes out accurate flesh tone and enables eye contact, providing a real-time experience at different locations. It can also be engineered to avoid static meetings. "You can use rich media, play movie files and introduce props," he said. "You don't need to dumb down the meeting."

Cisco's solution lets meeting participants share documents, objects or images and engage with a virtual agent for customer care. It delivers 1080p high-definition life-size images, spatial audio and plug-and-play collaborative tools. Local Cisco managing director, Ross Fowler, said the sense of immersion was very important. "The experience is just as good as being there. It's like being at a normal meeting," he said. "With videoconferencing, people would feel like an interloper or an observer. Since 50 per cent of communication is non-verbal, it is so important to have a life-like experience."

Beam me up, Scotty
Fowler said Cisco rolled out the technology globally last October and considered it a leading example of its emerging technologies. Head honcho, John Chambers, reportedly compared telepresence to teleporting from Star Trek, and said he saw the technology as a potential billion-dollar market for Cisco.

The company is upping the ante and now offering the ability to connect to multiple locations during a single virtual meeting, Fowler said. The company's TelePresence multipoint switch supports up to 36 separate physical locations. Fowler said the plan was to roll it out at 52 Cisco offices around the globe; 40 had been completed so far. Locally, a Melbourne site is in the works. Down the line, Fowler predicted partners would offer the technology as a managed service. He said banking and financial markets would be ideal targets.

Cisco has unveiled a Select Operate Service, which provides customers and partners with remote monitoring and network management of their unified communications and telepresence solutions.

TelePresence authorised technology providers (ATPs) are being trained to design, deploy and support the TelePresence Meeting Solution. To date, Dimension Data is the only ATP in Australia. While IDC doesn't have local numbers just yet, telecommunications associate analyst, Yue Vivian Li, said the five-year worldwide growth rate would see telepresence bulge from $US64 million in 2006 to $US1.026 billion in 2011. Local players included Cisco, HP, Tandberg and Polycom, she said.

Li said slashed travel costs would be the main market driver, and senior executives would be the main target audience. High cost was the main market inhibitor at the moment. "The price is still a very serious issue," she said. "How to prove a return on investment is tough." Cisco's gear comes in two flavours: the Cisco TelePresence 3000, which is a three-display unit ideal for 6-8 people and priced at $US300,000; or the TelePresence 1000 with one display for $US79,000.

IDC's Li said she expected the majority of sales would be direct, although partners would eventually get into the game. "At the moment, it's mainly direct sales because only the very large companies can afford it. You need lots of technical support and it's not likely to come from a reseller," she said. Dimension Data is doing just that, and offering a mix of services. Certainly, for the user to believe the telepresence experience, some sophisticated technologies are required.

The Cisco implementation included specially designed lighting and furniture, as well as plasma screens and audio solutions. "There's good work around audio to ensure there's interaction all around the room," Florian said. "The booking system provides attention to detail. A big barrier to videoconferencing was the lack of process."

The software lets users launch calls with one button on the phone interface. The technology works with IP-based phones and call-processing systems from the major networking and telecommunications vendors. It also offers integration with enterprise groupware solutions such as Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes.

Florian said DiData even found itself in the paint business. "You have to get the paint colour right because it has to feel like the other half of the room," he said.

Meeting of minds
Cisco isn't alone in its telepresence efforts, with other vendors positioning themselves for a slice of the action, according to IDC's Li. HP rolled out a multi-point format that connects up to four locations in a single Halo conference and allows up to four participants from each remote site to appear together in a round-table format. Individual Halo Studios can be added to or dropped from a multi-point conference without interruption, according to the company.

With the HP solution, Li said users pay a one-off charge and then a monthly fee in order to maintain the service.

Polycom is also at the table and recently acquired US-based Destiny Conferencing. Destiny's telepresence solution already incorporates Polycom's videoconferencing products and is the basis for Polycom's RealPresence (RPX) telepresence offering.

The company said RPX offered high-definition video in a cinematic view, StereoSurround audio and high-resolution content in an immersive telepresence environment.

Cisco plays with Regus

Cisco Systems has struck a global cooperation agreement with serviced offices provider, Regus Group, which will extend the reach and service support for Cisco's TelePresence videoconferencing system. Regus' clients will be able to book a virtual meeting at any of 50 selected locations worldwide, where TelePresence is installed.

Cisco will provide remote network monitoring and management of the video suite, as well as unifi ed communications services and the network that supports them.

"Cisco is slowly redefining its technologies as services, and moving into network service management," Ovum principal analyst, IP enterprise, David Molony, said.

"Regus Group manages offices and facilities for businesses from SMEs to multinationals including Accenture and Nokia in 950 sites worldwide, so this deal instantly extends the potential reach of Cisco's services outside the main boardroom," he said.

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