With companies worldwide slashing corporate travel budgets, telepresence, which burst onto the technology scene couple of years back, is getting a relook as a way to engage in face-to-face meetings without the need for travel. While the first generation of videoconferencing technologies was plagued by many ills including scratchy audio quality, low-grade video and unreliable technology, telepresence, powered by IP, creates a conferencing environment that seeks to mimic the in-person experience as much as possible.
Several technologies make telepresence possible. High-definition video cameras and large, flat-panel monitors clearly display participants in life size. Optimized networks — making use of QoS and even application-aware protocol acceleration — help eliminate audio and video delay over long-distance and high-latency WANs. As such, participants can make eye contact with colleagues and immediately pick up on all-important visual cues — such as how someone reacts to an offer. Moreover, operating the systems can be as simple as using a television remote control or telephone.
Vendors say telepresence is one of the biggest growing market segments in the IT sector, especially in collaboration. “Developments in industry standards, network availability and network performance are allowing an increasing number of organizations to adopt telepresence to become an integrated part of their day-to-day business processes,” says Munzer Aloush, Regional Manager of Tandberg, which is now part of Cisco.
Wael Abdulal, Collaboration Sales Manager, Cisco UAE, says telepresence has moved beyond the hype phase, and is witnessing accelerated adoption. It is on the top of list when it comes to growth, and customers are now asking specifically for telepresence solutions for corporate offices, universities, hospitals, ministries and other verticals. The majority of our customers who invest in telepresence come back to expand to new locations because of the quick Return on Investment,” he adds.
Dharmendra Parmar, GM of Marketing, FVC, which distributes Polycom in the region, echoes a similar opinion: “As enterprises expand regionally and globally, telepresence has seen a higher rate of adoption with several early adopters reaping the benefits that this technology brings. The primary reasons for an increase in growth in telepresence at the moment are the combination of increased communications with savings in travel expenses and a contribution to the reduction in CO2 emissions. “
Telepresence typically starts as a simple SIP (Session Initial Protocol)-based IP phone call from one phone number to one or more others. If the phones identify themselves to the SIP query as telepresence-capable, the video signal is sent to them.
There are typically at least three voice-activated video cameras set up around the room, plus multiple large screens and sophisticated lighting and audio equipment. The telepresence computer system that can process all of this AV input with no visible latency also requires high-speed network connections. The necessary bandwidth needed for a true immersive experience varies: If you want six different rooms linked together, you're looking at 12Mbps to 15Mbps of bandwidth. A single screen at high-definition quality may need only 1.5Mbps to 2Mbps.
Though the early adopters of telepresence systems have typically been large enterprises with huge travel budgets, vendors are working to lower the cost of entry. “Reducing the bandwidth required as well interoperating with hi-def PC based systems will allow the benefits currently being seen by large enterprises to be extended to smaller ones. Indeed it is more important for smaller business to maximise their time by not having to travel for meetings or to view products,” says Allan Scott, Head of Marketing, Unified Comms and Collaboration, BT.
Mechelle Buys du Plessis, Strategic Account Manager, Dimension Data, agrees that any organization, irrespective of its size, that has a requirement to communicate with clients and staff in different locations is a telepresence client, particularly in the case of those with multinational and distributed offices.
The cost of collaboration
Even with falling hardware costs, a telepresence system still carries a price tag, which puts it beyond the reach of many. A group system that can accommodate 18 to 36 users can go for $350,000. The reason why it costs so much is that an immersive system requires a room with special lighting, acoustics and furniture. And that doesn’t count in-house network and bandwidth costs.
How do you justify such an investment, in these trying times? Telepresence proponents say calculating the payback is pretty simple – take a serious look at how much you are spending on employee and executive travel among your various offices.
“The cost of deploying telepresence is easily justified as organizations save tremendously on travel costs, accommodation costs and the time lost by senior executives in travelling. In fact, the company realises exponential productivity gains simply through less hours stuck on an airplane. The company also contributes to decreasing the carbon footprint on the environment, as executives travel less and use this technology more effectively for faster decision-making,” points out du Plessis.
In the Middle East, the early adopters of the technology have been global companies with regional branches. “From a demand perspective, we see high demand for domestic usage followed by Global companies with pan ME presence. In the coming period, I expect high growth from Middle Eastern companies, especially those who have already invested in TelePresence for domestic use. The ROI is very quick, the usage in some cases goes beyond 70% in a 10-hour working day so companies are realizing the value in telepresence and the productivity benefits if brings to organization and staff,” says Cisco.
While most of the opportunities and wins are in the countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, vendors say there is a growing demand in Africa. “This is because of Telepresence Lite, which is a new option designed to meet the small office demands at an affordable price with less bandwidth requirements. The main problems we face with telepresence are the regulatory issues in the emerging markets,” says Sherine Kassem, Business Development Manager, Orange Business Services.
Don’t despair if you can’t afford telepresence systems yet. Vendors such as Cisco have been working together with service providers in the region to offer this latest videoconferencing technology as a service by setting up public telepresence rooms.
Pay on demand would also make telepresence more affordable, according to Ravi Mali, Regional Director- Service Provide Business, Juniper Networks. “Changing the business model to usage-based will decrease the pricing strategy and will increase its adoptability. What this really means is that users would have a choice to increase their bandwidth on demand when participating on a video call as well as apply a quality of service to have an assured experience of video, then go back to their normal bandwidth when the video call is over.”
Enterprises can have the option to go to an operator’s ready built studio for use, or, if telepresence is created as a service, enterprises can buy the end point equipment depending on their size and location, he adds.
Apart from cost, another hurdle to telepresence adoption is interoperability. “It will be a major driver for growth. Different systems from different vendors being able to communicate with each other will also allow the entry for lower cost solutions,” says Scott. Many vendors have already started working on ironing out the issues related to interoperability. Polycom, for example, has Polycom Open Collaborative Network (POCN), which provides an open and interoperable collaborative solution that gives customers greater flexibility and investment protection. “The main tenets of POCN are standards-based solutions, solutions that are scalable, flexible, multi-network, and able to run in mixed environments,” says Parmar.
Cisco says it did have interoperability with Video Conferencing systems from the early stages but it was limited to Standard Definition SD using SIP or H323. “Since then we have enhanced our portfolio to include High Definition HD. Now you don’t need to be in a TelePresence room to join a TelePresence session, we can stream the telepresence session to your iPhone, or you can join it from Webex, or join it using your video conferencing system. We are also working with Video Conferencing and telepresence vendors on the telepresence to telepresence interoperability protocol – TIP,” he says.
None of these are insurmountable obstacles, and as with any new technology, telepresence has its own share problems, which are being addressed by the industry pioneers. With ever-improving compression technology and falling prices, the second coming of videoconferencing in its telepresence avatar surely sounds like a perfect storm brewing.