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The pros & cons of Telepresence

Telepresence will never replace an in-person meeting, but the technology is getting closer all the time

With corporate social responsibility and cost savings driving the agenda for businesses of all sizes, companies are always looking for ways to use new technologies to help them meet these objectives.

As today’s business is more global than ever before, meeting face-to-face can often be a costly venture and put a big mark on a company’s carbon footprint.

While in some cases there is no substitute for meeting face to face, Cisco Systems (NASDAQ: CSCO) and other technology vendors have come up with a communications solution that takes video conferencing to the next generation.

Marketed as “telepresence” by Cisco, the technology goes beyond traditional video conferencing to offer the customer the closest experience to being in a place they’re not physically in.

Using high definition audio, video and other interactive elements – even down to the lighting, furniture and paint on the walls – the customer can have an in person meeting experience over a converged network without having to leave their office.

Compared with videoconferencing, telepresence offers face-to-face interactions between the people in the meeting through the transmission of life-size, high definition images and audio.

While the technology is difficult to define without having the experience, Cisco Canada’s chief technology officer, Jeff Seifert, explains it in his own words:

“Telepresence is an immersive video experience that mimics lifelike experience as if you were in the room with people,” he said.

Similarly, Darryl Wilson, area practice manager with Dimension Data Canada, said telepresence is in a whole other league than video conferencing.

“If one has ever experienced a telepresence call, they would say this is not video conferencing,” said Wilson. “It makes you feel like you’re sitting across the boardroom at the table with the other person.”

If people haven’t experienced it for themselves, Wilson said they need to visualize it as a typical 12 person boardroom table with six chairs on one side and the other six chairs could be anywhere else in the world. Because it’s in high definition video and audio, Wilson added, the user can see facial visuals such as sweating, or if someone drops a pen on the other side the person will look over in that direction.

Cisco recently released a telepresence solution for small and medium sized businesses, called Telepresence System 1100.

The system is a one screen, one camera telepresence system that can be used in multiple conference rooms, unlike the higher end systems which are fitted to one room specifically.

The 1100 is suited for two people. It features a standard 65-inch plasma screen and can be used in conjunction with Cisco Digital Media Player as an audio conferencing device, as an auxiliary display for presentations or as a digital sign.

Cisco has six telepresence systems, ranging from the 500, which has a 37-inch display, camera, microphone, speakers and lighting to the 1300 series, which features life-size images and can accommodate up to six people, all the way up to the 3200, which can host up to 18 participants in a meeting room.

Customer demand for telepresence is being driven by three main factors, said Seifert, with the first being a reduction in travel.

“Telepresence allows them to have more meetings without having to travel,” he said. “We at Cisco typically are now able to visit three or four cities a day using telepresence, rather than with flights.”

Cisco has telepresence systems deployed in 154 cities in over 40 countries, which has also helped it cut over $300 million in travel and productivity costs.

Telepresence also allows employees to spend more time at home with fewer red eye flights, which Seifert said is a major factor for employers attracting top talent.

Companies don’t even have to be global to have a business case for telepresence. With the vast geographical distances and time zones in Canada alone, Cisco partner Longview Systems of Calgary has 1100 systems in its Calgary, Edmonton and Denver offices and recently implemented a 500 system in its Vancouver office.

Kent MacDonald, vice-president of network systems at Longview, said his company’s CEO decided that if it was going to take part in telepresence, then it had to implement the technology itself.

So far, it’s proven to help it win some big clients, including a local oil and gas company – a market that’s quickly adopted this technology.

“The oil and gas industry has a lot of commonality with other industries in that they have a lot of expertise that is geographically dispersed,” said MacDonald. “Oil and gas tends to be connected to Calgary and Denver and sometimes overseas.”

MacDonald said telepresence is not only beneficial to the oil and gas companies because of time and money saved on travel, but also because these companies often have multiple levels of teams within the organization that pull and push information from each other. With telepresence, the teams can quickly put a call into each other in different cities and work together to come up with a solution to the problem they may be having at their particular site.

For many of the same reasons as cited above, Jayanth Angl, senior research analyst, Info-Tech Research Group, said there are numerous benefits to telepresence that outweigh the high cost of implementation and infrastructure demands that go along with it.

“It does go a long way to recreating a face-to-face experience,” said Angl.

He added that Cisco’s lower end of the market solutions such, as the 500 and the 1000 systems, are not the same experience as the higher end telepresence solutions. He likened them to similar solutions offered by video conferencing vendors such as Tandberg and Polycom.

But Angl didn’t rule out that the lower end systems could still be a very productive technology and they can help to address travel costs.

Angl said it’s important to remember that while Cisco’s brand of telepresence systems are widely recognized because of its branding of the term “telepresence,” that Hewlett Packard (NYSE: HPQ) also offers a similar type of technology. The difference between the two vendors’ technologies, he said, is that HP’s solution has a managed service to provide bandwidth whereas Cisco’s solution is delivered over an enterprise wide area network (WAN).

Overall, Angl said telepresence as it stands today is part of a longer term evolution of the technology. He added that he believes it will eventually come down market as part of a natural process similar to many newer technologies in the market.

Angl said there’s an opportunity in the consumer side of the market to have this type of technology available to them from their living rooms.

Seifert sees this as a possibility going down the road. Cisco recently announced that its adapting it’s consumer telepresence business unit to take it into the home.

With faster broadband connections in the home than even a couple of years ago, Seifert said this is now a possibility two-to-three years down the road. But it won’t be a solution that consumers can buy off the shelves, he said, adding that it will still greatly involve the role of the solution provider to implement it properly.

Given the vast possibilities of telepresence, however, everyone is in agreement that there’s still no substitute for face-to-face contact in some situations or cultural backgrounds.

Dimension Data Canada’s Wilson said nothing will ever replace an in-person meeting.

“Culturally, some people are very tactile,” said Wilson. “If you have a very good customer, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to meet them. But it will eliminate a lot of travel that’s unnecessary. I don’t see it as anything bad. We’ve used it to close business.”