Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Telepresence as a Service

Just as telephone means sending your voice at a distance and television means pictures at a distance, telepresence means projecting yourself at a distance. It's not quite the Star Trek technology of beaming yourself physically from one place to another, but it might be close enough for business purposes. Now that Cisco and AT&T are teaming up to offer telepresence as a managed service rather than a capital expense, could the floodgates be opening for the virtual business call?

Telepresence has its roots in video conferencing. I remember using video conferencing in a large enterprise a decade ago. It wasn't pretty. The system was telephone based with a conference phone on long table and a video projector showing the feed from the far end on a pull-down screen. Images were fuzzy. To get everyone in the picture you had to widen the camera angle so far that it was hard to see facial expressions. Movement? Ha! I think we saw better full motion video from the Moon landings.

The real problem with telephone based video teleconferencing is that there's really not enough bandwidth to get the job done right. Even with 128 Kbps available through ISDN BRI phone service, video looks a long way from realistic. But now that broadband connectivity is ubiquitous, the door is open to high quality voice, video and data sharing. Cisco has been the big player in capitalizing on this new capability and at just the time it is needed most.

The best friend telepresence has is $100+ per barrel oil. High fuel prices are already stifling consumer travel. How much longer before they kill business travel? Not completely, of course. There are some situations where you positively have to meet in person to close the deal. But can you really afford to keep sending teams of a dozen participants to present a business case or attend a professional seminar? How about when you'd like to get together and hammer out some engineering details or contract clauses, but you're in New York and they're in Los Angeles and you'd really like to have things wrapped up by 5 PM? When it's now 2 PM?

What telepresence does is bridge the gap between physical locations for most needs. Cisco's approach has been to emulate the conference room table by dividing it half. Your half, on either end, is still a physical wood table. Their half, also on either end, is one or more high definition video screens with wide band audio. The scene is designed to fool the eye and ear into believing that your colleagues 3,000 miles away are right there on the other side of that conference table. As long as you don't try to pass a pot of coffee or plate of cookies over there, you might just be able to maintain that illusion indefinitely.

The beauty of a telepresence system is that goes beyond just shaving the cost of business travel. The additional leverage of being able to meet virtually at any time with participants from almost anywhere can more than offset the disappointment of not being able to get out of the office and go visiting, depending on how you feel about business travel. Another bonus you gain is all that downtime riding on buses and getting your shoes screened at the airport is recovered. If time is money, the value of additional productive hours may even exceed the bottom line on the expense report.

Up until now, there have been two giant hurdles to improved teleconferencing. One has been the inherent bandwidth limitations of trying to feed anything but phone calls down a phone line. That's been solved by broadband connections, either dedicated Internet VPN service or point to point private networking. Cisco estimates you need 1 to 5 Mbps to support their TelePresence system. Most larger companies have that now with T1 lines (1.5 Mbps) and DS3 connections (45 Mbps). Carrier Ethernet at 10, 100 and 1,000 Mbps makes the high definition conferencing option even more compelling.

The other hurdle has been cost. With specially designed and outfitted conference rooms needed to get the real value from Cisco's TelePresence, the capital expense has been appropriate only for the largest of corporations. Perhaps that barrier is also going to fall. Cisco's partner AT&T has the worldwide IP networking capability to provide the bandwidth. Cisco can provide the dedicated hardware. Companies can pay as they go using this managed service without having to risk huge amounts of construction capital when they're not so sure how much they'll really use it.

On a smaller scale, desktop and small meeting teleconferencing is proving popular for virtual workgroups, online enterprises, and sales training. Many of these are Web conferences with audio teleconferences supporting the slide shows and computer presentations. The cost is low enough that even the smallest companies can afford a service such as GoToMeeting or GoToWebinar.

Do you need help upgrading your audio and video conferencing equipment? How about improving your network WAN bandwidth to support communications with your employees, customers and suppliers? Being agile with your electronic conferencing capabilities offers the potential for faster response time, travel cost savings, and a greener approach to running your business.

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