A week or so ago I posted on telepresence, or high-definition video conferencing, and mentioned a number of vendors in this class, including Polycom, HP and LifeSize. Since that time, I've met with a number of these companies and can now add Teliris, which made some compelling arguments on why it should be considered. This got me thinking about how I would go about selecting a solution in this space.
I'd break it down into price, assured quality, line breadth, interoperability, flexibility, vendor reach and behavior-change resources.
There is no particular order to these, though you'll likely find some clear tradeoffs, as quality and reach go up with price. One of the most important considerations, however, is behavior-change resources, because if the system isn't used, it is a huge waste of money.
Interestingly, we seem to have vendors that are strong below $50,000 in terms of complete solution price, those that are strong above $200,000, and very little in the middle. This implies an impending consolidation. It's hard to find anyone with a truly complete line from the small end of the market to the very large. Prices rise along with ease of use, realistic experience and more focus on room use.
The less expensive the system, the more it depends on overall network quality. This can create latency and packet drops, depending on the system and network. If you have a lot of excess capacity and a reliable network, this problem is largely mitigated, but you have to assure the pipe end-to-end. Part of the cost of the higher-end solutions is that assurance (some even use private networks). When trying to create an environment similar to being there, latency and/or packet drops can be a big problem, which often justifies the more expensive installations.
Part of quality is ease of use and this can vary widely among system vendors. It doesn't matter how good a call is if no one can figure out how to make it. As part of your quality assessment, make sure someone can walk up and use it without formal training. Training, or the lack of it, has been cited as one of the biggest reasons that legacy video-conferencing systems weren't used.
Few companies can afford high-end systems every place they want them and while I know of one $400,000 system in someone's home, that clearly isn't going to be the norm. If you have needs that range from remote small offices to large boardrooms and want to maintain quality throughout, line breadth is very important. If you are just going large site to large site, or boardroom to boardroom, it is less so, though personally, if I have the choice, I'd favor a company with line breadth over one that didn't have it so I'd know that I could handle future installations without going multi-vendor.
If you have to go multi-vendor (and given the lack of true top-to-bottom breadth in any vendor this is likely), interoperability is very important. In addition, companies often grow through merger and acquisition or need to connect to vendors, customers or partners who probably will not have the same system you purchased. A system that is good with common standards will allow broader use in such situations and likely pay for itself more quickly because it is used more often. A communications system that won't interoperate is like having a phone system that won't work with other phone systems and probably won't have any sustaining value as a result. Fortunately, interoperability is a trend for this segment but I'd make sure I tested this capability before purchase.
Part of interoperability is how many sessions the system can handle at once. It isn't uncommon for people in multiple locations to want to collaborate and some systems don't scale beyond a single call. Assess your needs and make sure the solution you choose has the interoperability you need.
You will likely have groups of all sizes and individuals using the room with the system in it and that means it will need to scale to meet your reasonable needs. Be aware that a system that scales may not be able to do small, discrete groups as realistically and you should, in pre-purchase trials, assure yourself that it will adequately perform for your ideal groups as well as undersized and oversized groups. The goal is to make sure the room can be used as often as possible because that is how the related system pays for itself.
Multi-national companies need a vendor that can install a multi-national solution and understand the limitations of the installation regions. In covering long distances, latency can be a huge problem and there may be issues with local networks that will require local knowledge to correct. It is really expensive to have any vendor learn this on the job. This doesn't mean your own telephony team can't learn to address these problems, but it's always better to be working with someone who has been down this path before if given a choice.
Behavior Change Resources
One area that I've found to be critical is a service that can help you ensure the systems, once purchased, are used. With video conferencing systems, the vendors made lots of promises but wandered off after the sale and installation was complete. The result was unused video conferencing rooms. Many of the new telepresence vendors have resources, some formal services, that can help you establish policies and practices to ensure the system you buy won't be left gathering dust. Given that this is how the system pays for itself, it is incredibly important that the vendor you choose has resources that can help you with this. I'd interview existing customers to ensure the services perform as promised.
Wrapping up and Looking to the Future
I'll cover where I think this technology is going in more depth in a follow-on post but, in a nutshell, given that there is a lack of vendors with lines that scale from small offices and homes to large enterprise boardrooms, I'm expecting consolidation in this space as these solutions gain in popularity and sales. In addition, I'm expecting a merging of some of the things we currently are seeing in properties like Second Life, and advancements to include things like what Apple is currently demonstrating with iChat in terms of creating virtual backgrounds (green screen-like) solutions that should eliminate the need for expensive common rooms. But that is only the tip of the iceberg and suggests a seventh vector, which is R&D.
No one solution will be ideal for everyone but if you think through your needs with regard to each of these elements and then challenge the bidding vendors accordingly, you should end up with a solution that best fits your needs and budget.
Telepresence, if done right, is one of the few technologies that both pays for itself very quickly and improves the overall life quality and productivity of your employees. It's worth both a look and the effort it takes to select and deploy it properly.