Telepresence shatters communication barriers

From high-end suites to tabletop codecs, telepresence systems create a near face-to-face experience at increasingly affordable prices

Meet the telepresence players

There are plenty of vendors out there offering telepresence solutions, all of whom offer a host of equipment packages and associated services.

One of the leading telepresence vendors is Cisco, which should come as no surprise given the company's varied telecommunications products. Cisco's solutions combine high-definition video (720p or 1080p) and spatial audio -- sometimes installed in custom rooms -- into an immersive experience delivered over Cisco IP networks.

The Cisco TelePresence solution is sold in five configurations. Each includes the endpoint hardware, management software, and multipoint switching capabilities. The latter permits large meetings plus interoperability with collaborative applications such as Cisco WebEx. (If you don't already use Cisco routers and switchers, they would be an additional expense.)

At the high end, Cisco TelePresence System 3200 ($340,000) is a three-screen setup with two rows of tables. Providing full spatial audio and life-size video for up to 18 participants, it's typically used for large team meetings or distance learning.

Cisco TelePresence System 3000 ($299,000), comprising three panels, includes a table that sits six on each side for team meetings. It easily fits into most standard conference rooms.

Cisco TelePresence System 1000 ($79,000) is a single-screen, free-standing unit, designed for small group meetings, but a larger monitor makes it suitable for general-purpose conference rooms as well. The just-released System 1300 ($89,000) boosts the screen size to 65 inches, includes three cameras, and accommodates six people.

Finally, the Cisco TelePresence System 500 ($33,900) is an all-in-one, single-screen system designed for one or two users in a private office.

Cisco TelePresence Multipoint Switch and Manager applications help ensure a smooth meeting experience. For example, the Switch supports meetings of up to 48 segments (remote locations) and provides built-in security. Moreover, Manager integrates with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes calendars for simple room scheduling. During meetings, an Auto Collaborate feature lets people in all rooms share images from a laptop or high resolution document camera.

Significantly, Cisco delivers high-quality audio and video, with little latency, without using too much bandwidth; this helps to keep costs down. This is accomplished through QoS (quality of service) functions that are part of the Cisco networking components.

If an outright purchase of a Cisco telepresence system isn't in the cards, you might consider renting a Cisco Public Suite, available in Santa Clara, Calif., Boston, London, and major cities throughout India.

Donning HP Halo

Halo has an interesting background. Pioneered at DreamWorks Animation, this solution was originally an in-house project for real-time collaboration between studios in California and Europe. HP then commercialized the system, which is offered in three packages: HP Halo Collaboration Studio, Collaboration Meeting Room, and Collaboration Center, all installed on your premises.

HP manages Halo for you, with the idea that participants simply walk into a room and start collaborating. All Halo rooms operate over the Halo Video Exchange Network (HVEN), a dedicated fiber optic network with AES256 encryption. The main difference among systems is the number of participants supported and corresponding construction costs.

Collaboration Studio ($349,000), HP's ultimate solution, is built inside a dedicated space. It includes sound-absorbing wall coverings, broadcast-quality video cameras, and executive table.

Halo Collaboration Meeting Room ($249,000), which easily sits six people, is usually installed within an existing conference room space. This lowers the cost, but you don't sacrifice industrial design. For instance, a specially designed curved front wall (that holds four plasma monitors) helps keep participants' eyes trained on the meeting at hand.

Halo Collaboration Center, available in two- and four-seat configurations ($135,000 for the four-seater), is HP's smallest telepresence solution. Like the other setups, it's permanent, but designed to fit into an executive's office or small conference room. Standard components include a 65-inch plasma monitor, a 42-inch collaboration screen for data sharing, and one camera. Options include a lighting package and overhead camera.

For all rooms, supporting equipment (including audio mixer, frame grabber, scan converter, and control server) is housed in a rack that's out of sight. This reduces noise and minimizes visual distractions.

HP engineered Halo with several other important features. The proprietary three-axis-control camera system automatically follows participants' head movement for better eye contact. Also, a secondary high-definition collaboration channel lets you share presentations and video from laptops with high fidelity.

Much like HP does with its personal computers, a custom graphical user interface (available in 15 languages) helps users connect to multiple locations with a few clicks.

Finally, through an alliance with Tandberg, Halo rooms can connect to standards-based (ITU H.323, H.320, or SIP) videoconference meetings using the HP Halo Gateway.

In addition to one-time room setup costs, Halo Telepresence Service is $18,000 a month (per Meeting Room or Studio) or $9,900 monthly for each Collaboration Center.

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Mike Heck

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