Interoperability between telepresence and other forms of videoconferencing is important, especially in a pinch. Larry Quinlan, CIO of the New York acounting firm Deloitte USA, says there might be times when a speaker couldn't get to a telepresence room but could participate by using the Webcam on his or her laptop.
Deloitte is deploying a mix of Polycom RPX (Real Presence Experience) telepresence rooms and less elaborate HD videoconferencing equipment. "I have a hundred locations in the United States, and it would be crazy to put custom-built, high-end rooms in all of them," Quinlan says. Instead, Deloitte has about 10 telepresence rooms and may go to about 20. He'd like to have HD video in each location, but expects that only about one-fifth of them will get custom-built roo0ms.
Quinlan sees telepresence technology represents a big leap forward from prior videoconferencing systems, which were difficult to work with and often produced blurry, pixilated images. "I don't think [telepresence] is that overhyped," he says. "When you take the combination of the audio sound quality, much better picture and the custom room, it just works better--only it's damned expensive."
Many disagree with Quinlan. Numerous firms with mature videoconferencing infrastructures scoff at the innovations telepresence brings. They say that videoconferencing's bad reputation has mostly been a matter of making too many compromises and supporting too many features, leading to excessive complexity.
David Danto, director of emerging technology for the Interactive Multimedia Collaborative Communications Alliance, says telepresence vendors have made an impression with a strategy that says, "We can't do everything well, but we can do this one thing really well, and all you have to do to start is press this one button." That may work for organizations that need intense, ongoing collaboration between locations that can be equipped with identical equipment, he says, but it tends to break down if more diverse locations and technologies are required.
Danto sees more potential in desktop video phones. Telepresence may make companies take a second look at video communications, but features like ease of use, quality and reliability can be delivered without big screens and a custom-built room. "The communication may be nicer on a big screen, but that doesn't mean you can't get the message across on a smaller one," Danto says.
Kaufman, the investment bank CEO, says he's tried solutions built around a custom room design and doesn't like them. "I find them kind of awkward," he says. "You're supposed to sit in a specific place, and that makes me feel much less comfortable." What makes a real difference for him is the image quality, with its intimate sense of eye contact and ease of use. "And you don't need special lighting for that," he says.
Not everyone shares Kaufman's opinion. The United Steel Workers, for instance, took the telepresence vision very seriously when it began to use Tandberg equipment to support negotiations with Unite, a British and Irish trade union, over a planned merger. The negotiations eventually led to an agreement to cooperate on the formation of a new global organization, Workers Uniting, and telepresence technology played a role in that resolution.
"We built two rooms that were identical right down to the wood trim, the tables and the fixtures," says Mike Krueger, United Steel Workers information systems director, adding that the telepresence setup was extremely important and made a difference.
After months of flying back and forth between the United States and England early in the negotiations, the return on investment case for the telepresence technology became obvious. "It doesn't take too many trips with 20 people going back and forth to London to be able to pay for this technology," Krueger says. "It also allowed us to meet more often."
And the telepresence technology continues to add value. In addition to being employed by top executives of the two unions, the system supports a weekly meeting between the IT teams here and abroad. So far, the system covers just two locations--Pittsburgh and London--but a third will be added once Workers Unite establishes its own headquarters, possibly in Australia.
The key to deploying this technology successfully, Krueger says, is to make sure it's consistently reliable and offers high quality. That's why the union alliance runs the telepresence system on a separate DS3 circuit from AT&T.
That's a common strategy. "In almost all the sales we've had at a variety of corporations, they're running it on a separate, parallel network, not on a converged network," says Bob Siedel, vice president of sales and marketing with BT's video services unit, which offers managed telepresence services based on equipment from Cisco, Polycom and Tandberg.
In other words, in order to guarantee a high-quality experience, many organizations run telepresence on a separate network out of fear that its bandwidth demands would overload their core corporate networks. They may plan to move telepresence to a converged network eventually, but only after their capacity planning has had a chance to catch up with this new requirement.
Quinlan says Deloitte started out running telepresence on a separate network but is working to change that. "We're now confident enough with the technology that we don't think we have to run it on a separate network," he says. Moving it to a common network--with appropriate quality-of-service controls to allow telepresence to share bandwidth with other applications--is essential to scaling the technology.
"Right now, we're at the point of considering telepresence as part of an overall video strategy," Quinlan says, adding that it would be "the highest and most expensive part of that strategy."