Review: Cisco's TelePresence is as good as being there

Cisco's TelePresence is not just a more expensive version of videoconferencing. Experiencing Cisco's TelePresence live is an experience totally unlike anything videoconferencing has delivered before.

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Cisco's TelePresence is a combination of very high quality audio and video communications and multiple physical environments (with identical setup) that attempts to replicate the intimacy of an in person meeting in a single room.

Cisco's TelePresence may seem like a more expensive version of videoconferencing, a technology that never lived up to its promise, however, those that have witnessed TelePresence live realize that the experience is totally unlike anything videoconferencing has delivered before.

I have long been a critic of traditional videoconferencing systems. I believe in the concept of video communications, but my past experiences have been disappointing for a number of reasons. Roll-around video systems normally required thirty minutes or so of IT time to set it up, so that removed any possibility of spontaneity. Room-based systems often had issues where the voice and data streams were out of sync creating a very distracting user experience. The setup process was made cumbersome by clunky devices, and B2B communications were typically done over ISDN necessitating a participant versed in SPIDS. All in all, the complexity of set up far outweighed the benefits of such a system.

I expected much of the same from Cisco's TelePresence. I went in very skeptical, expecting just another video call. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how different the experience really was. The initial set up did not require any knowledge of the other endpoint (IP address, etc). A quick push of the buttons on the IP phone and we were connected.

Another selling point was the amazing picture clarity and lucid sound. Anyone that's ever been on a videoconference has probably experienced a jittery picture, audio/video that was out of sync or quality so poor that it was more effective to call the other person back on the phone. The experience I had with TelePresence was so clear visually that I could read what the person "across the table" was writing and audibly that I could hear even quiet whispers. Overall, the combined audio and visual quality with the other room dynamics did provide the feeling of intimacy so often lacking with other videoconferencing systems.

TelePresence does not end with an amazing audio visual experience. Users should expect more in the way of "peripherals" to enhance the "just like being there" experience. Cisco just added a document projector for replication of PowerPoints and other documents. Future peripherals might include a shared whiteboard and a business card reader/printer system for exchanging business cards. All things are indeed possible with TelePresence.

Despite all the benefits I have detailed, the big drawback to this system is its cost. Systems range from $100K and up and average an additional $3K to $10K for bandwidth charges. If companies mandate TelePresence use in lieu of corporate travel, the ROI could be quite rapid. A trip to Asia from North America can run several thousand dollars and multiple days of travel time. For corporate executives, TelePresence may be a more efficient alternative to expensive, time-consuming travel.

As a person that spends far too much of my life on planes, I'm hoping that the uptake of TelePresence is faster rather than slower. I'd encourage anyone that has tried to use video as a way to collaborate over land and sea to take a serious look at this tool. Make sure to involve your corporate executives early on, as they may need to cut the corporate travel budget as a way of paying for the product.

About the author: Zeus Kerravala manages Yankee Group's infrastructure research and consulting. His areas of expertise involve working with customers to solve their business issues through the deployment of infrastructure technology solutions, including switching, routing, network management, voice solutions and VPNs.

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