Telepresence shatters communication barriers

From high-end suites to tabletop codecs, telepresence systems create a near face-to-face experience at increasingly affordable prices

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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.

Meet the telepresence players
There are plenty of vendors out there offering telepresence solutions, all of whom offer a host of equipment packages and associated services.

One of the leading telepresence vendors is Cisco, which should come as no surprise given the company's varied telecommunications products. Cisco's solutions combine high-definition video (720p or 1080p) and spatial audio -- sometimes installed in custom rooms -- into an immersive experience delivered over Cisco IP networks.

The Cisco TelePresence solution is sold in five configurations. Each includes the endpoint hardware, management software, and multipoint switching capabilities. The latter permits large meetings plus interoperability with collaborative applications such as Cisco WebEx. (If you don't already use Cisco routers and switchers, they would be an additional expense.)

At the high end, Cisco TelePresence System 3200 ($340,000) is a three-screen setup with two rows of tables. Providing full spatial audio and life-size video for up to 18 participants, it's typically used for large team meetings or distance learning.

Cisco TelePresence System 3000 ($299,000), comprising three panels, includes a table that sits six on each side for team meetings. It easily fits into most standard conference rooms.

Cisco TelePresence System 1000 ($79,000) is a single-screen, free-standing unit, designed for small group meetings, but a larger monitor makes it suitable for general-purpose conference rooms as well. The just-released System 1300 ($89,000) boosts the screen size to 65 inches, includes three cameras, and accommodates six people.

Finally, the Cisco TelePresence System 500 ($33,900) is an all-in-one, single-screen system designed for one or two users in a private office.

[ Read about the InfoWorld Test Center's hands-on experience with the Cisco TelePresence System 500. ]

Cisco TelePresence Multipoint Switch and Manager applications help ensure a smooth meeting experience. For example, the Switch supports meetings of up to 48 segments (remote locations) and provides built-in security. Moreover, Manager integrates with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes calendars for simple room scheduling. During meetings, an Auto Collaborate feature lets people in all rooms share images from a laptop or high resolution document camera.

At the low end of total immersion, the Cisco TelePresence System 500 is a richly featured (and pricey) turnkey system. See the review .
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