At the top end of the videoconferencing scale are immersive telepresence systems that require dedicated meeting rooms with an array of specialized hardware for a true face-to-face feeling. Leaders in this market include technology giants Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T and Polycom; I tested the Cisco TelePresence System and Polycom's RealPresence Experience.
Cisco TelePresence System (CTS)
Cisco has the networking infrastructure to make telepresence work extremely well. In my tests, however, I found the overall experience to rate just a notch below the Polycom telepresence offering.
I tested Cisco's midtier offering -- the six-person CTS 3000 room -- at the company's demo center in Bloomington, Minn.; the exact same LCD displays and equipment are used in its larger 18-person room, the CTS 3200. Cisco uses three 65-in. LCD screens running at 1080p resolution and 30 frames per second. In my tests, the video looked a bit lifeless and dull: Hand motions and gestures were smooth but not quite as lifelike as with the Polycom suite, and the color was not as brilliant and crisp either.
Setting up a CTS meeting is extremely easy. The CTS 3000 integrates directly into Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook, so as you're setting up a meeting in either of those clients, you just add the telepresence rooms (a minimum of two, of course) to your meeting, and the back end automatically configures the connection and places a meeting notice on the phone in the room. To start the meeting, you just touch the meeting notice on the phone. (You can also dial a number that is tied directly to each suite.)
Cisco holds to more rigid specifications than Polycom for its telepresence rooms: It uses the exact same cream-colored paint in every room, with the exact same chairs and lighting. A light above the LCD displays adds a soft glow across the room, and this uniform lighting makes the participants look lifelike and crisp, as though they really are sitting in the same room as you.
A few interesting touches add to the virtual meeting experience. You can connect a laptop, but there are no additional monitors in the room. Instead, your screen is projected just below the main LCD screens, which keeps your focus pointing forward and engaged with the meeting. An icon shows up in the LCD displays to indicate that your laptop is connected.
Cisco holds 40 patents related to telepresence, including 20 just for audio (such as an echo cancellation technique that helps make audio sound true to life). Like the Polycom offering, the Cisco suite did an excellent job of making audio sound realistic; for instance, if someone is talking to your left, the audio comes from that direction.
Cisco offers a wide array of videoconferencing products, all of which tie into the CTS suite. During my demo, the room connected with another CTS suite in San Jose, a Cisco EX90 desktop system and a Tandberg T3 telepresence suite all at the same time. (Cisco acquired Tandberg in April 2010.)
Pricing for Cisco telepresence is lower than for the Polycom suites. The 18-person CTS 3210 room runs about US$340,000, the CTS 3000 room I tested costs US$300,000, and other endpoints -- such as the EX90 desktop system -- cost about US$10,000. Monthly fees for maintenance and support vary by installation and company deployment.
Felten says Cisco offers enterprise customers a distinct advantage over other telepresence providers due to the simple fact that it has so many installed systems -- about 800 worldwide. That means choosing Cisco may offer the ability to connect to more telepresence suites, including those in hotels. And Cisco is the service provider for the telepresence network backbone, even for non-Cisco telepresence systems, he says.