Cisco helps meetings go widescreen

Videoconferencing system delivers life-size images of conference participants in real time

If you're an enterprise executive, Cisco Systems wants to put you on TV -- big-screen, high-definition TV.

The curtain is set to rise Monday on a videoconferencing system that delivers life-sized images of conference participants in real time with the highest video definition commercially available. Integrated with high-quality speakers and specially built meeting tables, it also makes each remote participant's voice seem to come from where they appear.

Cisco calls the system its TelePresence Meeting solution, and although industry analysts don't think it will make videoconferencing a must-have throughout the business world, it does look ready to make long-distance meetings more lifelike.

The Cisco TelePresence 3000, designed for meetings of as many as 12 people around a virtual table, uses three cameras and three large plasma displays. In front of each seat at the table is a built-in microphone, and speakers at the other participating location correspond to each microphone's location. A built-in white panel above the screen floods soft, even light onto the participants. Users can project presentations on a white screen below the video displays, and whiteboarding is a future capability, said Randy Harrell, director of product marketing for Cisco's TelePresence Business Unit.

The system is designed to make virtual meetings as realistic as possible, but it's also intended to make it easier to have them. TelePresence is integrated with Cisco's CallManager software for IP telephony and with Microsoft Exchange, so conferences can be started up just by calling the other conference room's number on an IP phone.

The TelePresence 3000 and the single-screen TelePresence 1000 are standard systems that can be set up in just two days, Harrell said. Few changes need to be made to a typical enterprise conference room, he said. That means customers can go to selected regular Cisco channel partners for the system rather than paying for audiovisual specialists.

In addition, TelePresence can run on an enterprise's standard IP data network. It requires 10Mbps with low latency across the LAN and WAN (wide-area network), which may require upgrades for some users, analysts said. For the wide-area network, Verizon Communications' Verizon Business unit said its Private IP services can already support the system and enterprises can allocate bandwidth to it part-time or full time.

The TelePresence 3000 and 1000 are expected to ship in December. For two locations, the 3000 will start at $299,000 and the 1000 model at $79,000. A year of support is included.

Hewlett-Packard's recently released Halo system is in the same class as TelePresence, though Cisco seems to have the edge in video quality, said Yankee Group Research analyst Zeus Kerravala. The new class of systems represents a big leap ahead, he said.

"I wouldn't even compare it to videoconferencing. It's like comparing a race car to highway driving," Kerravala said.

Cisco has improved the quality of videoconferencing, which often has been spotty and visually poor, analysts said.

Cisco demonstrated the system last week with a virtual meeting between its San Jose, California, headquarters and a site in New York. Participants looked and sounded natural, but for most of them it wasn't possible to look each other in the eye. That would require three-dimensional video and 1T bps of bandwidth, and it's at least four to five years away, according to Cisco.

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