Modular videoconferencing systems
Unlike desktop video chat services, which run on your computer, modular videoconferencing systems use specialized hardware setups that connect to an HDTV and usually include multiple components, such as a set-top box and HD video camera.
While some modular systems are meant for individual use, others are intended to be used in a meeting room by multiple participants. As you'd expect, they're more expensive than desktop videoconferencing products but much more affordable than full-scale telepresence systems.
I looked at the LifeSize Passport videoconferencing system; some telepresence vendors, such as Tandberg/Cisco and Polycom, also offer modular systems.
LifeSize Communications, a division of Logitech, offers multiple videoconferencing products ranging from desktop video apps to eight-way videoconferencing systems. I tested the company's LifeSize Passport system, which consists of a camera that transmits 720p video at 30 frames per second and a set-top device that you connect to your own HDTV via an HDMI cable.
Because the service doesn't run on a computer, there is no software to install. And because participants aren't using their own computers, you'll need at least two systems for your company.
The Passport system supports only two-way video calls, but other LifeSize systems support more participants. When you connect to another LifeSize system, you become a client of that host and can connect to as many parties as the host supports. So even though two other testers and I were using Passport systems, we were connected to a LifeSize Express host system for a four-way video call.
The Passport unit, which costs a flat rate of US$2,500 with no additional service charges, worked extremely well. There's no extra screen clutter, because you're making a one-to-one connection between LifeSize endpoints and not using a Windows or Mac operating system. The stream quality, when I tested it on a 3Mbit/sec. connection in a home office connected to the host and two other participants on corporate T1 connections, was smoother and more consistent than Yahoo Messenger, Skype or ooVoo.
Configuring the system is extremely easy -- you just plug in the set-top box and the camera, connect to an HD display, and turn on the power. To make a call, you type in the unique IP address of the host's set-top box.
You can record LifeSize videoconferences and host them at Videocenter.lifesize.com. You can also install an app on your computer and plug it into the set-top box for screen-sharing during a videoconference.
LifeSize products are more interoperable with other videoconferencing systems than desktop video services. They support the IMTC (International Multimedia Teleconferencing Consortium) standard, so it's possible to use LifeSize systems with telepresence systems from, say, Sony or Tandberg. (However, the Cisco and Polycom telepresence systems I discuss later in this story do not support IMTC and therefore do not work with LifeSize.) LifeSize also includes a Skype client on the Passport system so you can call Skype users, although you can't hold a 10-way videoconference.
Companies that invest in the LifeSize Control management software can manage meetings, see reports on usage and set up security for all videoconference calls. The software also communicates with Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar (but not Lotus Notes) so users can set up meetings from a computer, automatically triggering a videoconference for all participants. LifeSize Control costs US$150,000, runs on Windows Server 2003 SP2 or 2008 R2, and works with all LifeSize products.
As easy as the LifeSize system is to use, there is one downside: This videoconferencing tool uses the traditional approach of a hardware product connected to a television, which might seem a bit quaint to the typical corporate user. While there is a management console and screen-sharing, they are add-ons to the basic product that must be installed on your computer and configured separately.
Robert Mason, a Gartner analyst who covers videoconferencing, says modular systems like those offered by LifeSize are a good fit for companies with a distributed workforce -- especially those that do not want to have dedicated videoconferencing rooms in regional offices or an HQ building. Modular systems are for those who "want to maximize the immersive quality of the experience, but not invest in the room," he says.