Cisco's TelePresence gets personal

The high-definition virtual meeting system will be available at a less expensive entry price for midsized businesses later this year

Cisco Systems will take its TelePresence virtual meeting systems into home offices later this year, bringing telecommuters nearer to their corporate colleagues and society one step closer to science fiction.

TelePresence uses high-definition video, large flat-screen monitors, and advanced audio systems to make electronic meetings more lifelike, with a full-size view of participants at each site. It was introduced in late 2006 in configurations for six and for two meeting participants, but executives have said they are aiming eventually to expand the technology to the consumer market. The prospect of life-size interactive TVs in living rooms may someday foster closer relationships among widely dispersed families, but also conjures up images of the Telescreen two-way televisions in George Orwell's book "1984."

Unlike the Telescreen, the 37-inch Cisco TelePresence System 500 can be turned off by the home user. It's designed to let a telecommuter or an employee of a medium-sized business participate in TelePresence sessions with coworkers, partners, customers, and others without traveling. It's a step down from the three 65-inch displays used in the flagship TelePresence System 3000, but it includes speakers, camera, a lighting setup, and a built-in microphone array in the screen to deliver similar quality, according to Cisco. It can be mounted on a desk, pedestal, or office wall, with the screen doing double duty as a second PC monitor or a digital sign between meetings. Users can participate in one-on-one meetings and companywide TelePresence sessions with coworkers who have the larger systems.

The System 500 is not the consumer device Cisco envisions, which former Chief Development Officer Charlie Giancarlo last year predicted could be sold within two to three years for about $1,000. The System 500, coming in the third quarter, will have a list price of $33,900. But it does represent a less expensive entry price for medium-sized businesses. The six-seat System 3000 costs about $299,000 per room and the one-screen, two-seat System 1000 is priced at $79,000 per room.

A complete room analysis and system configuration service is included in the price of the existing products but will be optional for the System 500 because it generally won't be necessary, spokeswoman Jacqueline Pigliucci said.

Also in the third quarter, Cisco will expand the TelePresence line upward with the System 3200 for 12 or 18 participants. It will have a second row behind the existing six-person configuration, with similar specially designed desks with built-in microphones, which place a speaker's voice correctly for participants at the other site. The back row doesn't have to be raised above the front, Cisco said. While participants in the front watch a display below the main screens for data sharing, those in the back row can see that content on additional screens above. The System 3200 will have a list price of $340,000, and there will be a $90,000 upgrade kit for System 3000 customers.

Along with the System 3200 comes an update that will also be available in the other platforms: Data-sharing will run at 30 frames per second; until now it has been 5 frames per second.

TelePresence has been a high-end, high-profile hit for Cisco, which said last week that revenue for the platforms rose 1,000 percent in the quarter ended April 26 from a year earlier. More than 500 units had been ordered since the technology was introduced in October 2006, the company said.

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