The Essential Guide to Telepresence and VoIP

Updated: April 30, 2009

Telepresence is a visual-communications technology that promises to revolutionize corporate collaboration by delivering real-time, face-to-face interactions around a virtual table. This is accomplished through a combination of life-sized projections, fluid motion, spatial audio, high-definition cameras and optimized networks. With a price point upward of $250,000, a telepresence system provides a trouble-free alternative to crowded airplane cabins and security clearances. But that's not all. As companies become increasingly global in scale, and gas prices reach unprecedented highs, telepresence also stands to drastically cut travel costs while greatly improving productivity.

Telepresence's high-definition cameras and huge projection screens are easily able to illustrate physical characteristics and cues — such as a sweaty brow — in great detail. No wonder, then, that telepresence serves as a valuable vehicle for business negotiations and sales pitches. Then there is telepresence's potential for allowing human-resource executives to interview job candidates from afar while still getting a feeling for an applicant's personality. And in the not-so-distant future, it's likely that telepresence will aid geographically scattered engineers and product managers in the product-development process.

How Telepresence Works

Although features differ, telepresence systems typically share the use of high-definition television screens — a key ingredient for making it seem as if conferees are actually in the same room rather than scattered throughout offices worldwide. These screens are positioned to be at eye level and panels are seemingly pieced together so that participants feel they're looking at a single, wide screen. Audio is adjusted so that voices seem to emanate from individual participants rather than from a set of centrally located speakers.

Companies can choose between stand-alone or hosted telepresence systems. Hewlett-Packard Development Company LP's Halo telepresence solutions, for example, are managed over HP's Halo Video Exchange network. For a monthly fee, users enjoy access to the Halo Video Exchange network, a dedicated fiber-optic network that connects Halo studios worldwide. What's more, all diagnostics and calibration are handled remotely and during off hours without troubling in-house staff. A Halo concierge is also available 24/7 to field questions, granting companies peace of mind regarding lag and potential quality issues.

Cisco Systems Inc ., on the other hand, offers a stand-alone application that can run over a business's own network — provided it meets the necessary bandwidth requirements. In fact, only a select number of VARs (value-added resellers) are authorized to set up Cisco's telepresence product because it must be installed according to Cisco Systems' specifications to create a specific, in-person experience.

Telepresence Benefits

The specific benefits of a telepresence system are:

  • Virtual executive meetings, job interviews, sales presentations and so on
  • Collaboration between teams with expert involvement as needed
  • Regularly scheduled updates of projects between personnel at remote sites
  • Troubleshooting of technically complex products
  • Connecting "in person" at a moment's notice with customers, partners and co-workers
  • Reducing time to market and speeding up decision-making process
  • Product innovation among disparately located experts
  • Building solid business relationships across distances and cultures
  • Increased productivity and collaboration through more frequent interaction
  • Environmentally conscious communication through reduced travel

Telepresence Costs

At costs ranging from $55,000 to upward of $500,000 per system, telepresence isn't for everyone, and companies should give serious consideration to whether or not the technology's hefty price tag will offset travel expenses and communication costs. For those unable to justify this high capital expense, vendors are beginning to offer less-expensive alternatives. Telanetix Inc ., for example, offers a fully featured telepresence solution, available on a $1,000-per-month financing plan. The SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) -based, standards-compliant system is designed to operate on any high-quality IP network and can communicate with SIP-based systems from other manufacturers.

Challenges

With its high technical demands and sophisticated network requirements, it's crucial that companies properly deploy and maintain their telepresence systems. A third-party provider can help keep tabs on the technology's web of room systems, collaboration tools, software and business-to-business connectivity issues. Just the physical installation of a telepresence solution calls for ceiling-height assessments and acoustic adjustments, and the entire deployment process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to complete.

Interoperability is another issue companies need to confront when deploying telepresence systems. Most use at least some proprietary video and network components, although some vendors are making sweeping advancements towards greater interoperability. Cisco Systems, for example, recently announced completing interoperability with virtually all standards-based video-conferencing systems on the market today. These capabilities expand the virtual-meeting experience beyond the limits of a single company's network, enabling businesses to connect with customers, partners and suppliers with the ease of a simple phone call.

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