Telepresence: Are Rising Oil Prices Videoconferencing's Best Hope?

Whether it is carbon offsets, the rising price of oil against the weakening dollar or increasingly onerous business visa requirements, companies—especially small companies located in Europe—are choosing to forego visits to the United States in return for looking elsewhere for profits. Yet this hat trick of political, financial and environmental issues may just spell a significant opportunity for videoconferencing, one that has not been seen since the early advent of videoconferencing gear.

Videoconferencing was first implemented on a large-scale basis during the late 1970s, a time of financial and environmental unrest much like we are in today. But the quality of the videoconferencing systems, plus the cost of implementing T1s or ISDN lines, led to slow implementations and a decline in usage as soon as gas prices dropped back to reasonable levels.

High-definition video conferencing (or "higher-definition," as some pundits call it) is finding a resurgence in products such as IP-based telepresence. While "virtual boardroom" or "virtual conference table" systems have been around for almost two decades, the cost of these systems was prohibitive and the quality of the experience less than stellar.

"The advent of HD videoconferencing is a completely new era for videoconferencing," said LifeSize's CEO Crag Malloy in an interview for a Streaming Media podcast in late 2007. "Before HD, when someone wrote on a white board, the image was almost illegible on the other end. HD is the difference between having a natural conversation and having a very limiting conversation."

Between the time of the first videoconferencing systems and the adoption of standard-definition IP videoconferencing, Christine Perey and I did a research survey to see what factors might be holding back the move from ISDN to IP. The survey, done back in 1999, found a number of issues that are still being addressed (for the most part) today. For instance, we found that 47% of respondents ranked the inability to achieve end-to-end quality of service on their enterprise network as a key reason for not deploying standard-definition IP videoconferencing at 384kbps or 512kbps. Even those who could achieve QoS felt the quality of the videoconference—low-quality images or jerky, delayed motions—wasn't good enough to justify the move to upgrade networking equipment and bandwidth to guarantee Quality of Service.

Today's newer HD systems require sizable bandwidth as well, but thanks to the standardization on H.264 almost 4 years ago, many HD systems can provide a full-blown telepresence (the "virtual conference table") for as little at 7.5Mbps sustained data rate.

Everything Plus the Kitchen Sink
The Polycom TPX HD 306M, the cream of the crop in traditional videoconferencing telepresence, uses three Polycom HDX 9004 video codecs to achieve its telepresence setup. These codecs, each supporting 720p at 30 fps, are linked with three 60" plasma monitors that allow up to 12 people to sit around a "virtual table" with 6 people per side (or 2 people per codec / plasma monitor).

The TPX HD 306M unit for each local room (the "end point" in videoconferencing terms) also includes a half-table, with participants seated just as they would be on either side of a regular conference table, minus the two end seats. Polycom even has a suggestion for use of its half-table, which doesn't look like the traditional hemispherical table of earlier telepresence systems: "Off video, participants can be seated all around the conference table," the Polycom literature notes. "In this way, the suite becomes dual purpose as both a telepresence suite and as a traditional conference room, thereby maximizing utility for the organization. This unique design is a free-standing solution with independent video wall and conference table."

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