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Cisco crafting telepresence Rosetta Stone

At its big collaboration event this week, Cisco is wheeling out what it describes as the Rosetta Stone of high-definition videoconferencing to address one of the biggest problems facing the technology — interoperability.

Cisco's Media Experience Engine 560 will provide connectivity among Cisco's telepresence gear and products made by other vendors, including telepresence equipment and high-definition videoconferencing hardware, the company says.

This new router blade is bundled with a package of telepresence and videoconferencing products Cisco made public this week at its Cisco Collaboration Summit.

Telepresence gear attempts to create the illusion that distant participants are actually sitting across the table from each other with the idea that the conferences are realistic enough that companies can cut travel costs incurred to attend actual conferences.

Like the actual Rosetta Stone, Media Experience Engine has its limits. The device can translate protocols used by Tandberg, Polycom and LifeSize in their telepresence and HD video gear, Cisco says, but not other vendors. Participants in conferences from sites supported by those vendors' equipment can be displayed within Cisco telepresence sessions, and the Media Experience Engine. If a site uses a lower definition video display, for instance, the Cisco engine can scale down the transmission to suit the endpoint.

The new device will be generally available in January.

Another tool to push use of telepresence is the Cisco TelePresence Directory, what the company calls a White Pages for telepresence phone numbers. Companies wishing to set up telepresence sessions with other businesses that have Cisco telepresence gear can look up the number to call. This makes setup of conferences simpler, Cisco says.

Users would still have to clear the conferences with the other businesses in order to be allowed to make the connection, but configuring gear to join conferences is streamlined.

Business-to-business videoconferencing in general is complicated because different companies buy gear made by different vendors and it isn't always interoperable. Cisco says it has more than 500 telepresence customers who theoretically could have telepresence conferences with each other. With 500 of them to choose from, it is likely that some would be interested in doing that, Cisco says.

Because of interoperability challenges, much of telepresence gear is used within single companies.

Another push for interoperability among communications modes is Cisco's Telepresence-WebEx Engage, which enables sharing of documents via WebEx during telepresence conferences. It also enables participants who connect only via WebEx — excluding the video end of the conference — to be heard and to hear the telepresence session.

Cisco says that it plans to introduce bridging of Web cam video into these sessions later.

The Telepresence-WebEx Engage lets users schedule teleconferences and set up the WebEx segment of the meeting at the same time from the TelePresence dashboard.

Cisco is also introducing two IP phones, the 8900 and 9000 series, that have the ability to support video cameras.

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