Telepresence technology overview

What is telepresence and what are the hidden considerations that vendors often won’t tell you? Anna Mitchell explores an integrator’s place in this rapidly growing market and what you need to know to get involved.

“An immersive experience based on video conferencing that typically creates the illusion that the remote participants are in the same room as you,” answers Richard Norris, consultant at market research body Wainhouse Research, when I ask for a definition of telepresence.

This is Wainhouse’s official definition and probably a good place to start because one thing that quickly becomes clear about telepresence is no one can quite agree on what it actually is. Definitions vary wildly. I’ve heard it is meeting between two or more points where all end points are located in immersive rooms; there is directional audio, good lighting and matching furniture and backdrops. I’ve heard it’s simply HD videoconferencing where all participants are life sized. I’ve even heard you can have telepresence on desktop or a laptop or a tablet device.

Confusion could stem from a perception that Cisco owns the word after bringing out a very high-end immersive solution called TelePresence with a capital ‘T’. Or perhaps it’s vendors trying to steer clear of the term videoconferencing, believing that it has become a “dirty word” after the bad quality of early solutions.

But once you move past the confusion it is quite clear that there is still a demand for high quality, immersive systems that come with a high price tag. And, while vendors push video into everyone’s daily working lives - extending it to lower parts of a company and propelling it into smaller businesses – there is still a healthy focus on offering the full immersive meeting solution often in a dedicated room.

When telepresence first emerged the likes of HP and Cisco embarked on a closed system approach. The idea seemed to be, taking Cisco by way of example, you would install TelePresence suites in your major business centres around the world and your high level executives would talk to their counterparts without having to travel.

But, the game has changed. Customers want their immersive solution from Cisco to talk with an immersive solution from Polycom and HP and Radvision and so on. And what’s more an immersive solution from HP or Radvision or Polycom or Lifesize needs to talk with conference participants in smaller multipurpose meeting rooms, on desktops, on tablets and anywhere in the world.

“I think Cisco’s approach to the market has changed,” explains Dave Thomson, European marketing manager for Unified Communications & Collaboration at Cisco. “We started at the high end with the large corporates and room based systems and we’ve seen video permeating a big part of the market – video is appearing everywhere. Starting out, the business case for telepresence was very much for executives and now I think that case is very strong for the rest of the organisation down. Recognising that shift was part of our Tandberg acquisition.”

Les Shaw, handles visual collaboration in EMEA for HP. He says H.323, a recommendation from the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T), and more recently the SIP standard have allowed different vendor’s systems to talk through gateways. However, implementing these gateways can be a costly business.

Bob Romano, VP of enterprise marketing at Radvision, says: “We [Radvision] were instrumental in helping to define and get ratified and standardised the standards for videoconferencing. We actually ended up creating a division that sold the protocol stacks and tool kits that manufacturers of video and audio conferencing devices would license from us. We have about an 85% market share in selling those core building blocks. So that gives us a huge leap up on interoperability.

“We are also very focused on standards. We believe standards are good and we believe they promote interoperability. The more products that interoperate the more value there is to the customer. We build the MCUs, the core servers that go into the network, and we made sure they were interoperable with all the different devices. We’re also strategic partners with Microsoft which allows standards based videoconferencing to work with Microsoft Lync through our Scopia Video Gateway.

Flexibility in telepresence is also coming down to the equipment you specify. The top end solutions will typically use rear projection or large format displays, high quality microphones with wide pickup patterns, directional audio, specialist lighting, cameras angled perfectly to create the perception you’re making eye-contact with the remote participants and sometimes video processing that will switch to and highlight speakers.

There’s loads of room here for specialist integrators to create these types of environments. Companies like Polycom – with its RPX and OTX systems, and Cisco sell solutions that include everything, including furniture and walls – a room within a room. HP takes this one step further and goes directly to the end-user to install Halo.

Then you have companies like Lifesize and Radvision that take a different approach and provide the components necessary for videoconferencing – the codecs, compression technology, system units, cameras. An immersive room can be created around this.

“We don’t provide the monitors, the furniture etc,” notes Radvision’s Romano. “What we do provide is very specific and precise measurements of how to put this kit in. We utilise our channel of resellers and system integrators to create the end solution.”

Ken Davison VP of global sales and marketing at Magor, describes his company’s approach: “We’re in essence a software company and all of our software runs on commercial hardware so we go through our resellers and we say you purchase the hardware and we license the software. We offer three form factors: HDSolo, HDDuo and HDTrio. What we deliver depends on whether the end user of reseller wants to opt out of procuring the hardware themselves. When I deliver hardware I don’t mark it up much. From a video and a technology perspective, migrating from proprietary hardware to a software model is where the market will evolve to.”

Shaw says HP is now adopting a slightly different approach to the market with its SVC (scalable video codec). “Technologically and architecturally the SVC is very different to the Halo studio,” he explains. “We’ve adopted this in HP because if you go back to our services business we’re very used to managing customer’s IT networks, data centres, portals etc. The SVC technology sits as a software application on a server and is played out on HP terminals.

“With the SVC model we’ve also expanded our routes to market,” says Shaw in what is an interesting proposition for resellers and integrators. “We have three routes now. One is the direct sell to our big service customers. One is to service providers. The third is the channel business.” HP never sold Halo through the channel before so it’s a big change and it offers AV integrators and network service providers a chance to use the HP technology as the base for bespoke solutions. ”We are currently looking for channel partners within this environment and I think that’s a big opportunity for AV integrators and companies that have been in this business for a long time.”

In addition to some highly specialised equipment, bandwidth requirements are a massive consideration when implementing a telepresence suite or even HD videoconferencing. And, most of the major vendors are very eager to tell you their compression technologies lower bandwidth requirements.

“Our product has completely different bandwidth requirements,” claims Andreas Wienold, Lifesize’s VP for EMEA. “We recently worked with a large corporate client which had a telepresence product that they liked and had implemented in their European headquarters and an office in New York. When they wanted to roll it out worldwide it just wasn’t feasible in terms of bandwidth. Most of the telepresence three-screen products need between 15 and 45 MB of bandwidth. If you have subsidiaries in, for example Nigeria, Indonesia, Latin America it’s just not possible.”

“Polycom has brought H.264 High Profile to market which reduced bandwidth requirements for HD by 50% last year. We can run an immersive telepresence room on a 2MB line.” says Daniel Weisbeck, vice president of EMEA marketing at Polycom. “And we have loss packet recover technologies which make sure you have a consistent image on the screen and you don’t get a pixelated image when the network can’t keep up. These things are making it possible to start having much higher quality and high definition experiences off premise.”

Musion, a company that famously beams speakers and presenters across the world using the Peppers Ghost effect, has very specific and arguably unique demands on a network. When Musion talks about high definition it’s talking 1080p and 1080i and not 720p. And what’s key to Ian O’Connell, director of Musion, is latency in telepresence systems.

“The ping time in latency is the time a signal takes to go from one point to another and back again,” he explains. “In satellite communications the ping time is typically between 1.25 and 1.75 seconds. The ping time for a GSM mobile international call is typically 400 to 600ms. The ping time for telepresence would typically be between 150 and 350ms.

“One of the key questions in understanding the effectiveness of telepresence over other systems is latency which is affected by two key things. One is line latency and the second part is in the codec,” O’Connell adds. He continues to advise that a massive consideration when implementing telepresence is look at a company’s encode and decode rates to determine how much latency you must add on to your line latency to determine the signal latency.

He also notes that vendors will sometimes handle high levels of latency in a network by knocking the video signal down to 720p and taking the frame rate as low as 12 or 14 frames per second. O’Connel advises frame rates of 50 or 60fps. Technology research body Gartner says a good telepresence system requires a minimum resolution of 720p at 30fps so these really are questions that integrators and AV managers should be asking telepresence vendors.

At this stage it’s probably interesting to note that Gartner recommends using a private network like Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) which would largely remove latency concerns.

“Telepresence suites are incredibly network intensive,” notes Wainhouse’s Norris. “It’s a massive consideration for an IT department and a major fear for many organisations. You have some vendors like HP who will sell the network that it runs on as well as the studio. Its an ongoing cost for the end-user organisation and those costs are very significant. So, over time HP would make more money with the network than they would with the equipment sale.”

“Part of Cisco’s sell would be selling the network itself,” notes Thomson. “In terms of guaranteeing the quality of communications obviously you need a good network.

The benefits of telepresence solutions – reduced travel costs, reduced carbon footprint, better quality of life for employees – are parroted so much they start to loose impact. Magor, which positions itself as a TeleCollaboration vendor, says it looks at the market slightly differently.

The question we should be asking according to Davison is “how does an HD videoconference experience provide increased productivity to a greater mass of people?”

“On average room based HD videoconferencing systems today have a utilisation of about six hours a month,” he says. “The average high end telepresence room, which is $0.5m to $1m is about 54 hours a month. The reason is not necessarily increased productivity of that room. When you pay $1m the CFO typically mandates a travel ban. Utilisation goes up but it’s a forced environment.

“Video needs to become ad-hoc and you need to integrate a collaborative experience into that with the tools you use on a daily basis: my desktop, your desktop, whiteboards, databases. I want to transfer as much information as I can and get as much out of you as I can during an interaction. When you say I’ll get back to you on email we’re not getting the right conclusion from a meeting.”

And Wienold says that immersive room environments alone won’t change the world. “We can now enable the CEO and CFO to have a big telepresence room and that’s nice but it doesn’t change an organisation. If we for similar costs get video into most of the meeting rooms and at a low bandwidth we allow them to reach any other location. That changes the way organisations work.

Talking to telepresence, videoconferencing and collaboration tool vendors and hearing their visions for how video will become a ubiquitous communication tool as well as how they plan to achieve that one thing starts to become clear. The confusion surrounding the term telepresence isn’t just about “sexing up” the term videoconferencing and it’s probably not about Cisco’s ownership of the term at all. As video communication becomes more advanced the lines between videoconferencing and telepresence are increasingly blurred.

“At the end of the day videoconferencing quality has gone right up. At the same time telepresence has moved down in cost and form factor and there has been a meeting of the two,” concludes Wainhouse’s Norris.

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