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Telepresence shatters communication barriers

Well before the current world financial crisis struck, organizations have sought inventive ways to engage in face-to-face meetings without the need to travel. Companies have turned to services such as Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, Cisco WebEx, Citrix GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Live Meeting as a means for workers in multiple locations to share presentations and otherwise collaborate.

No question, these tools greatly reduce costly, productivity-sapping travel, with the added benefit of lowering a company's carbon footprint. Yet scratchy audio quality, out-of-sync slides, and tiny, Webcam-quality video often diminish these solutions' usefulness.

Similarly, more traditional videoconferencing systems (which have been around for decades) suffer from low utilization rates — partially because of complicated, unreliable technology.

The door has now opened for telepresence solutions: 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.

Something for everyone

In general, telepresence systems fall into three configurations. First, there are formal group setups, purpose-built rooms that accommodate four to eight participants. Here you'll find warm wall coverings, soft lighting, three or four wall-mounted monitors, and a conventional conference room seating arrangement. In use, it's as if remote participants are sitting across the table from you.

Second, you'll find small-to-midrange setups, which comprise a single monitor and one camera, suited for handling one to four users. This option works well in executive offices, and some systems are mobile enough to be ferried among regular conference rooms. These less-costly systems work over existing networks, yet the picture and audio quality surpass that of early-generation videoconferencing solutions. None come with amenities such as plush suites, but they closely match expensive systems' picture quality and usability.

Finally, there are classroom-style rooms that can hold 30 participants or more. These facilities, which are used by corporate and educational institutions alike, usually have multiple monitors or video projectors.

The cost of collaboration

Even with falling hardware costs, a telepresence system doesn't come cheap. A group system at a single site that can accommodate 18 to 36 users can go for $350,000. One reason for the expense is that you typically don't install telepresence systems in any old room. An immersive face-to-face environment requires special lighting, acoustics, and furniture, which all factor into the price. And that doesn't count in-house (or contracted) network and support costs.

But before you despair, take a serious look at how much money you're spending on employee and executive travel among your various offices: airline tickets, food, accommodations, and the like. Factor in how much productivity is lost during travel, as well as how much time that travel can add to moving forward with a project or deal. In the end, you may find fast payback on your investment. For instance, Cisco representatives say that their customers often recover a telepresence investment in six to nine months, according to independent audits.

Notably, there are ways to reduce telepresence costs, including equipment leases and renting time at conferencing facilities. If price is still a barrier, you could consider one of the lower-end, high-performance systems, which run for less than $10,000.

Moreover, video chat applications are improving, too, though it's a real stretch to put them in the same category as fully developed videoconferencing solutions. Still, for little (or no) cost they let several people connect with very usable audio and visual quality.

Narrowing your choices

There's plenty to consider when shopping for a telepresence solution. Features vary from product to product. For example, you might need multiple cameras, but not 1080p high-definition video.

Additionally, you should look for a telepresence solution that adheres to standards. For example, compatibility with H.323 (a recommendation by the ITU Telecommunications Standardizations Sector) provides interoperability with videoconferencing equipment from different manufacturers. As a result, your meetings and training sessions can include other institutions or business partners.

Finally, you'll need to make sure your network can handle the weighty bandwidth requirements of telepresence. A general rule of thumb is that you'll need at least 1 Mbps for each video stream, or screen, at 720p resolution, and at least 4 Mbps per screen at 1080p. Naturally, there are practices and products, such as traffic shaping and protocol acceleration technology, that can help you with that.

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