Telepresence for the Rest of Us


It's interesting to watch the telepresence sector evolve.


Telepresence generally refers to the wildly expensive full-immersion remote participation equipment that has found something of a market among the highest-level executives of big companies. It is distinct from videoconferencing, which essentially is for the rest of us.


Telepresence systems can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy, install, monitor and operate. At first, it seems so expensive as to be comical. It begins to make sense, however, when the price tag is compared to the cost of having a top-level executive waste days traveling back and forth from short, but vital, meetings. In other settings, telepresence makes sense for collaborative efforts demanding very precise interactions. Think engineers designing an engine.


At best, however, these systems are out of the picture for all but a select few companies. Now, the market is migrating downward. Light Reading says that Cisco and Teliris have introduced products that are within the reach of far more companies. Cisco's TelePresence 500, which is meant for one person's use, is selling for $33,900. A new Teliris system, also aimed at single workers, is selling for $32,500. Both companies are adding higher-priced products as well.


Whether a company gets involved with telepresence, or even with its somewhat cheaper cousin, depends on whether they think travel costs will continue to escalate. This No Jitter post addresses the question of whether teleprescence is worthwhile.


The heart of the post is a slide used by Wainhouse Research at VoiceCon in March. It compares the costs of telepresence versus a "HD videoconferencing system." Wainhouse actually shows that the average cost per hour for an HD room is higher -- $174 versus $148 -- than a telepresence room averaged over a 36-month period. The reason is that the telepresence room is used roughly ten times as much. The piece leaves a question unanswered, however: Why do folks involved in most meetings need full telepresence? Isn't high definition good enough to go over accounting procedures and review sales results?


Even as the industry seems to be reaching down a bit, there still are expansive and expensive systems being released. For instance, Telepresence Options describes Telepresence Tech's TPT Room. It features a 70-inch conferencing display and three 40-inch collaboration screens. Beamsplitters enable 3D viewing and, according to the piece, the sharing of documents in the same field of vision.


Figuring out how to pay for equipment is only one of the tricky things about telepresence. The other is ensuring that such a demanding infrastructure is fed by a suitably robust broadband connection. Last month, AT&T and Cisco announced a service that combines the vendor's gear with the carrier's IP network, including its virtual private networking service. The service targets industries such as health care, high tech, retail and government. AT&T will install, monitor and manage Cisco equipment at customer premises.


This Streaming Media piece offers some interesting observations, including small European companies' increasing reluctance to travel to the States because of trickier visa requirements and higher fuel costs. This, the writer says, may be an opportunity for conferencing. The second point is reinforcement of the point that there truly are disparate telepresence and high-definition market segments. The writer then discusses new products: the TPX HD 306M from Polycom, the Edge system from Tandberg, and Express from LifeSize.


The definition of telepresence may be subtly broadening from total immersion to include very high-quality video conference. Indeed, some new names are in order: Potential users must be able to choose from traditional, low-quality and cheap video conferencing, HD conferencing, and full bells-and-very-expensive-whistles telepresence. The challenge for vendors, marketers and service providers is matching potential users with their needs.