Video-conferencing has come a long way from the days of fuzzy screens and endless time delays. Tom Otley explores the brave new world of telepresence technology.

If your last experience of video-conferencing was a frustrating half-hour in the basement meeting room trying to get pictures and sound to correspond, there’s good news – video-conferencing has come of age. The hardware, infrastructure and ease of use have all improved, and from the most basic product upwards, video-conferencing can offer some respite from the constant treadmill of travel.

Kees Hoogstraate, European marketing manager for video-conferencing at Sony, says: “The only real obstacle now is in people’s mindsets. They think that video-conferencing means fuzzy screens and shaky pictures, but that’s no longer true, and the cost of deployment is now far less as a result of IP networks, which have become more accessible and cheaper. Add to that the vast range of products available and then it’s just a matter of our asking companies why they are not using the technology when their competitors are.”

To the companies specialising in video-conferencing such as Sony, Cisco, Avaya, Polycom and Telanetix, the market is still challenging, remarkable really when business travellers are certain that travel has never been more unpleasant and you would think they would be ready to jump at the alternative. “It’s a paradox,” admits Hoogstraat. “Travel by plane has gone up in spite of video-conferencing and despite the security measures which make travelling difficult. We have to change people’s perception.”

In this they may be helped by the pressure on companies to reduce their carbon footprint, but how can this readiness to look at alternatives to travel be converted into investment in video-conferencing solutions? Well, a demonstration of the new technology would be a start, particularly at the top end, where progress has been so pronounced that it’s been given a new name: “telepresence”. It’s an attempt to distinguish it from the rest of the video-conferencing market, and also to give a sense of what it offers, although the definition differs depending on whom you speak to. Rick Ono, president and COO of telepresence-specialist Telanetix, says: “It’s life-size images and the ability to have eye contact with the people on the other end, so that it becomes an extension of your own conference room. When you’re in a telepresence session you should just be able to sit down and meet for hours and pretty much forget that you are 4,000 miles away.”

Anders Mortvedt, theatre product manager EMEA endpoints and telepresence at Tandberg, argues that “telepresence is video-conferencing”, although paradoxically extra limitations are imposed to create an illusion. He says: “Telepresence is video-conferencing with rules. The scene is set, you are told where to be seated and the limitations make it so simple and so straightforward that you feel you can behave as though you are in the same room as the person you are meeting with.”

This control of the environment is all-important, and although most providers will allow you to pick and choose the elements you want to buy, unsurprisingly they say that the best results come when the whole package is provided. To take one example, Cisco supplies the screens, the underlying network, the codex and the infrastructure, including Cisco cameras, microphones, colour IP phone, and the desks you sit at. As Tim Stone, senior marketing manager of Cisco, puts it: “The only thing we don’t supply is the seats. We have had a whole range of experts in to help with this, including Steven Spielberg’s cinematographer, who helped us design the most realistic experience.”

Of course, until you’ve tried telepresence, all of this sounds suspiciously similar to the promises the last video-conferencing salesperson made to your previous-but-one IT director. And as a result of that conversation, you purchased the video-conferencing equipment that is gathering dust in the basement meeting room mentioned earlier. For all the predicted savings in terms of avoided travel costs and greater efficiency, it comes down to utilisation of the machinery.

Stone of Cisco says: “Most video-conferencing systems are less than 5 per cent utilised. Our systems are well over 60 per cent utilised because people can actually use it. Meetings can go on a lot longer and it takes the place of being there because you are looking at a life-size image and there’s no issue of latency [time delay].”

Refreshingly, not everyone agrees with this. Mortvedt of Tandberg says: “Utilisation depends on the organisation and on the types of audio-visual they already have. We have seen the opposite, since if video-conferencing capability is spread throughout an organisation with people being video-enabled at their desk, they use it more than telepresence, which at the moment has to be in a traditional room.

“That’s why we see telepresence as an addition to the visual communication solution that our customers are looking for. In an ideal world they would need both video-conferencing rooms and personal video-conferencing on their desks, and this complementary approach means it is all part of a strategy to make communication more efficient.”

Taking a view

So does the technology work? Well, on the basis of a demonstration of Cisco’s telepresence product, I can say it does. I was speaking with Tim Stone and Marcus Gallo in Cisco’s London City office. The only novelty was that Stone and Gallo were 20 miles away in Surrey. For the first couple of minutes the experience was a little unnerving, but I soon forgot that they weren’t “really” there, and got on with the interview. As Stone was quick to point out: “The system, Cisco’s Telepresence 3000, has been designed to create as realistic a situation as possible. It has three cameras, which provide full eye-contact, and three microphones, so we have spatial audio and when we get into an interaction it’s pretty obvious who is speaking at any one time.”

Of course, there’s a lot of very clever technology behind all of this. Stone says: “We aim to create as near to real-life meetings as possible. If you are talking to clients in San Jose you will see no noticeable slow-down or reduction in quality. We have multi-point screens for multi-point parties, so you can have a screen for Milan, one for Singapore, one for Hong Kong… Over the Atlantic there can be a slow down – any more than a 250-millisecond delay and the brain will detect it, so we had to get all the latency below 200 milliseconds delay.”

For Ray McGroarty, solutions marketing director for Polycom EMEA, it is this technology which makes the difference. He says: “The high-definition cameras Polycom uses have a very small footprint so we can embed them in the screens people are looking at. The benefit of that is that most telepresence offerings have cameras mounted some way above the screens so it can look as though you are looking slightly below eye-level at people. With ours, because the camera is embedded in the screen, you naturally seem to be looking at the person you are speaking with.”

Other providers disagree. Mortvedt says: “There are a lot of different views and opinions on this. We decided to put the cameras on top of the screens because to us it is important we provide the best possible video quality and the best possible eye-contact. If you put the camera in the screen, it restricts the quality of camera you can use. You can’t have perfect eye-contact anyway, there will always be trade-offs.”

Cheap at the price?

Whether the cameras are embedded or not, this level of attention to detail is not cheap, with Cisco’s Telepresence 3000 costing just under US$300,000 (although there is a one-screen 1000 unit available for US$70,000), and Polycom’s costing US$200,000. But you don’t have to spend these sums. All the providers emphasise that they can tailor-make the solutions to the client’s requirements, and of course when you start to devise your own room the price drops. However, that may mean you are losing some of the advantages of telepresence and instead installing a high-end video-conferencing solution. Ono of Telanetix says his meeting-room edition of digital presence can be fully installed for as little as US$65,000-90,000. He explains: “A higher cost would depend on the aesthetics and the furniture you wrap around it.”

McGroarty of Polycom says: “We have a very flexible portfolio of products. One of the components is a coding system and we can provide that for around US$12,000, so our system integrators can build the environment and the service around that to make what many would regard as a telepresence experience with Polycom at the core. So you can look at the achievement of low-end pricing. If you do want the tailored Polycom environment, with floor, furniture and a well-packaged coding and camera system, then we are starting at US$200,000 for the TPX [Telepresence Experience], and with Real Presence Experience or RPX with the embedded cameras we are starting at US$300,000.”

Stone of Cisco is evangelical about the possibilities. He says: “Telepresence is not just about saving travel. Our vision is that eventually everyone will have telepresence. We are even looking at how we can extend it into the home, so it’s not just high-end executive technology.”

System compatibility

For this to happen the various systems need to be able to talk to one another, which currently isn’t the case. Mortvedt says: “Unfortunately, the Tandberg system won’t work with other systems. There are well-defined standards about how video-conferencing should be set up and interoperability, but there are no standards about how to set up a telepresence call, because we are dealing with four different screens which need to be synchronised.

Ours is based on standard video-conferencing, but there are no call standards about how to match different systems. It needs to change and I expect it will.”

Looking to the future

Telepresence is undoubtedly the first class end of the plane when it comes to video communication. All the providers have other products which cost a fraction of the price, and which they say will help companies with their communications and cut down on the amount of travel they are undertaking. At present, to see telepresence in action, you either have to be working for a company with significant financial resources, and offices around the world, or you need to find somewhere which offers the product in the multiple locations you require. It looks like that development won’t be long in coming.

Regus business centres offer video-conferencing in over 600 centres worldwide and each new centre opened is being equipped with the video-conferencing technology. Using Polycom technology, Regus can co-ordinate point-to-point and multi-point locations. Jayne O’Brien, chief marketing officer of Regus, says it has now agreed to deploy Cisco’s telepresence technology, “although there are as yet no dates for the first installations”.

In the meantime, companies like Sony are offering a “try and buy” (or its equivalent), with a customised sales approach. Hoogstraate of Sony says: “Going out to a customer and leaving the system there for a while is very powerful, and if you want to have a system but you don’t want to buy it right now we have financial schemes running allowing for payment to be spread out over a three-year period on a monthly basis.”


• Sound and picture quality has improved.
• The real cost has fallen in recent years.
• There is far more choice, from meeting-room video-conferencing options to desktop solutions.
• It has become easier to use – your interaction should be with colleagues, not with the technology.
• It is more reliable than travelling – no more missing meetings because of delayed or cancelled flights.
• It will help you stay competitive – if your rivals are using it, you should
see what advantages they are gaining from it.
• It reduces time and resources spent on travel, accommodation and entertainment.
• It can help reduce your carbon footprint.
• It allows for a better work/life balance.
• Research has shown that workers are less liable to call in sick if they can work occasionally from home.
• As a result of VOIP calls and video-enabled chats, people are more comfortable with the technology.
• It reduces stress.
•  It allows people to meet more often.