Telepresence Is a Large and Growing Sector

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The impact of convergence technology and converged applications is nowhere more apparent than in the teleconferencing sector. In some cases new technology improves existing applications. In teleconferencing, the impact is even more profound: Convergence has significantly broadened the parameters of the sector.


Much of the buzz around telepresence has focused on very expensive systems that include specially designed rooms and tons of gear that are science fiction for most companies. These systems simply wouldn't have been contemplated before convergence.


A very interesting analysis from Frost & Sullivan, without directly saying so, answers a very basic question: Who the heck would pay about $250,000 for something that sounds like the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation? The answer is plenty of companies, apparently. Cisco told the writer that its telepresence products experienced "huge" quarter-over-quarter growth, and that many companies are deploying two to five units -- and at least five deployed 10 or more.


Cisco itself, which has deployed 113 rooms worldwide, says that each room is being used more frequently and that the proportional use for internal purposes (as opposed to interfacing with customers) is growing. The main benefit of telepresence is not to reduce corporate travel, though that does occur. It is to speed decisions, reduce cycle times and in other ways speed company growth.


Another cutting-edge telepresence and video conferencing initiative was announced earlier this month by ProtonMedia and Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. The school is seeking to create "virtual worlds" by combining face-to-face with ProtonMedia's ProtoSphere, which the company defines as a way to create business-friendly virtual worlds. Put more simply, the business school is trying to create electronic environments in which its far-flung students and partners will be able to interact in a realistic virtual environment.


That's quite astounding. At the same time, companies are tracking back to fill in some of the gaps in their more pedestrian product lines. Polycom, which makes one of the highly advanced system in the RealPresence Experience (RPX), is taking a less expensive approach with the Telepresence Experience High Definition (TPX HD 306M), detailed in this eWEEK story on announcements the company is making at its users' conference this week. Though it still promises high quality, the new addition serves fewer people and uses less expensive display technology.


Oh, one other detail: The TPX HD 306N, the eWEEK article says, "...does not require the construction of a special room built to detailed specifications."


This Computerworld piece describes Microsoft's introduction of RoundTable, a tabletop panoramic camera and microphone. The story positions the product as part of the company's unified communication initiative and as an adjunct to the release of Office Communication Server 2007 later this month. While Cisco may have more modest equipment available than TelePresence, the story points out that in general the company is going after the higher end of the market while Microsoft is pursuing the larger segment of folks who don't want to break the bank to be able to look their partner or fellow worker in the eye, no matter where he or she is.


Telepresence is not only being positioned for sedentary executives. This AlwaysOn piece describes the value of telepresence for first responders. The feature, written by the CEO of Espere, describes a scenario in which a camera mounted on a police officer's or firefighter's helmet and sending images to a dispatcher, can bring medical or other experts online to help in an emergency. Clearly, this is a drastically different definition of telepresence than the one used by Cisco, but it belongs in this growing and highly valuable sector.


Marketers seek to define categories along the line of what their companies or clients offer. Cisco, naturally, will want telepresence to denote expensive virtual reality meeting rooms. As dazzling as the technology is, it is important for enterprises to understand that telepresence and video conferencing are a far broader array of services and technologies that are, in many cases, far less expensive and more utilitarian.