Polycom announces high-definition video support

Polycom this week took advantage of its annual Polycom User Group conference taking place in Phoenix to announce products that support high-definition (HD) videoconferencing, including new software for its MGC multi-point control unit and an upgrade package for its high-end group conferencing unit.

High-definition video offers 10-times the resolution (number of pixels) as standard video conferencing, meaning better picture clarity. Polycom is already shipping the software upgrade for its MGC units, used to connect multiple endpoints in a single call, allowing for up to 90 simultaneous HD calls running at 1M bit/sec -- the minimum amount of bandwidth needed to make a call at the higher video resolution. The US$6,000 upgrade kit for the high-end VSX 8000 line will ship in the second quarter of 2006 and feature a new camera and accessories for making existing units HD ready.

However, do users really want the new technology? Users, industry surveys and even Polycom executives seem to say, "no".

"HD is a great concept, but for a company of our size, how can we afford to replace 370 video units, some with dual monitors, with HD screens? It's not cost effective," says Stephen Callaghan, senior video architect at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). "Plus, bandwidth may be cheap, but at our size and the fact you need 1M bit/sec, that's a lot of bandwidth. Our biggest call has 100 users."

Callaghan added that videoconferencing traffic on the BMS network takes a back seat to drug and company financial data. BMS is already running conferences at an average of 384K bit/sec, which is three-times the current industry standard of 128K bit/sec, Callaghan says.

Polycom downplays the advancement as well. "HD is a nice to have, but we don't think it will change the number of participants [in the market]," says John Antanaitis, senior director of product marketing for the video communication division, who also claims pipe size is a factor. "There's a limit on bandwidth. Tandberg is claiming 3M bit/sec on a call and we're going to start at 1M bit/sec, but most organization won't have that."

Antanaitis says early adopters will probably be in the Internet2 community, educational institutions and particularly healthcare, where full-fidelity images are important when looking at a skin lesion during a telemedicine session.

Even for some of the potential early adopters, bandwidth could still be a challenge. "1M bit/sec is all of our T-1 connection," says Michael Roscoe, network technician for the Eastern Montana Telemedicine Network, a consortium of roughly 30 hospitals. "And bandwidth is still expensive in Montana."

In a May 2005 survey, Wainhouse Research asked 416 end users what their plans were for HD and 47 percent said it "would have little or no impact". Only 12 percent said they would move.

Why the move? Polycom must continue to innovate and improve quality. And, the competition is getting involved in HD. Start-up LifeSize Communications is scheduled to ship HD capable endpoints later this year and MCU maker Codian has an HD MCU in the works. Currently though, there is no HD endpoint available from the major videoconferencing manufacturers.

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