With companies worldwide feeling new constraints on their budgets, what was once considered a routine travel expense to visit global branches and global partners is now under scrutiny by the CFO. The tech industry -- especially Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard -- is hawking telepresence systems as the answer, but can a telepresence system with monthly costs ranging anywhere from a few thousand dollars to as much as $20,000 actually be the answer?
Like the technology itself, the definition of telepresence is morphing as the costs go down and the market increases. Originally, however, telepresence professionals referred to using immersive technologies. Perhaps not as radical as the virtual reality headsets depicted in movies, immersive is about the creation of an environment -- a space designed and set aside exclusively for telepresence conferences -- that lets participants feel as if they are in the same room with those who are actually elsewhere in the world.
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Telepresence is designed to simulate reality
Telepresence typically starts as a simple SIP (Session Initial Protocol)-based IP phone call from one phone number to one or more others. If the phones identify themselves to the SIP query as telepresence-capable, the video signal is sent to them. If it doesn't detect video, it just does audio.
There are typically at least three voice-activated video cameras set up around the room, plus multiple large screens and sophisticated lighting and audio equipment. The telepresence computer system that can process all of this AV input with no visible latency also requires high-speed network connections. The necessary bandwidth needed for a true immersive experience varies: If you want six different rooms linked together, you're looking at 12Mbps to 15Mbps of bandwidth. A single screen at high-definition quality may need only 1.5Mbps to 2Mbps.
At the high end of HD video, 1080p, participants can see the wrinkles around their fellow conferee's eyes and follow the movement of the mouth. This level of video quality may not appear to be critical, but if it is true that real communication is non-verbal, much of it conducted through what is called micro-expressions, then the key to a positive meeting result -- especially if telepresence is used to negotiate a deal -- are the high-end 1080p systems that can pick up every facial expression.
As one telepresence participant puts it, when done right, a few weeks after such an appointiment it is hard to remember whether or not you actually came face to face with the other people in the meeting or if it took place in a telepresence environment.
The cost of telepresence
Gartner estimates that for an all-inclusive setup -- including the equipment, network, and management -- comprising a multiscreen telepresence suite, companies can expect to pay anywhere from $12,000 to $28,000 per month. (HP runs its own fiber-optic network for telepresence, while Cisco contracts that to AT&T; in both cases, you need to make sure the connections are available to your facilities.)