by April 1, 2009 0 comments

With the progress in technology, video conferencing evolved as an alternative
medium of communication, although how effective it has been as a substitute for
travel is for all to see (how many times have you actually used it?). The
quality of images transmitted and received and the amount of jitter (accentuated
with poor bandwidths provided by underlying networks, still in their nascent
stages) and the overall quality of experience (a person is left fiddling around
with equipment more than he could focus on the actual conference) left a lot to
be desired. So, there was a clear case for technology to upgrade itself to high-res
equipment and ensure a seamless transfer of data across networks. Of course,
when you are talking business to the other party, you wouldn’t want your
discussions to be held hostage by the quality of your equipment. Especially,
when in the middle of a critical deal, as even a slightly raised brow is enough
to draw suspicions!

High definition video conferencing is a very hot area for communication
equipment vendors and there are a lot of solutions floating around. These
utilize all possible avenues and technologies that Internet has opened up. You
could look at high-def video and audio conferencing, instant messaging,
collaboration through whiteboards and chat and email; all these have been
combined and now form part of standard unified communications solutions.
Tele-Presence is a few notches above high-def video conferencing and includes
all these different collaboration channels to form one unique solution for
life-size corporate communication. The solution delivers a unique ‘in-person
meeting experience’ by ensuring that all the key elements of a physical meeting
are simulated. This means the emphasis is not limited to using high-def
communication equipment on high bandwidth network but also on other sundry
aspects such as the size of the video screens, tables, chairs, alignment of mics,
cameras, color of interiors across all interacting locations. First, let’s look
at the technical requirements in more detail.

Technical requirements
Almost all Tele-Presence systems out there use SIP or H.323 as the standard
protocols for audio-visual communication. Out of these SIP of late has been the
standard of choice for most communication equipment vendors and it makes sense
to go with Tele-Presence equipment based on SIP to avoid incompatibility issues
in future. Apart from this basic requirement here’s a list of other key

  • H.264 video codecs to offer highest quality compression.
  • Native 720p and 1080p high-definition cameras with pan, tilt and zoom
  • 65” inch plasma screens.
  • Native 720p and 1080p high-definition encoding/decoding of audio/video
  • IP-based conference phone with call scheduling and presence detection
  • Low-latency architecture and low bandwidth utilization to ensure
    error-free transmission of data.
  • Wideband advanced audio coding with low delay (AAC LD).
  • Multichannel spatial audio with echo cancellation and interference filters
    to eliminate feedback from mobile devices such as cell phones.
  • Ability to project whiteboarding, presentations, docs and spreadsheets,
    and play DVDs.

The Tele-Presence systems run on integrated voice/video/data network over a
secure VPN tunnel. This ensures quality of service (QoS), security, reliability
and high availability. These systems are scalable in nature and bandwidth
requirements depend on the number of communication channels. This depends on the
number of participants per meeting. A typical Tele-Presence solution that
facilitates conference for six persons requires anywhere between 15-20 Mbps of
bandwidth. As collaboration is the USP of Tele-Presence systems, you expect them
to be compatible with IP-based phones and call-processing systems from other
telecommunication vendors. Also, integration with enterprise groupware solutions
(such as MS Outlook ) accommodates easy scheduling of meetings and access to
corporate information.

What Your Implementation Partner
Must Have
Telepresence provides a
fabulous end-user experience, but it’s complicated and is actually a set of
collaborative applications from the same or multiple vendors. For eg,
integration with enterprise groupware such as Microsoft Outlook allows users
to schedule telepresence meetings in the same way they would send a calendar
invitation. Also, cameras are configured to focus on the speaker
automatically and participants do not need to manually adjust them during
meetings. The mics and speakers are optimally positioned within the
conference room to provide sound of the highest order of quality, without
any interference. For display, typically 65” plasma screens are used with
each screen big enough to comfortably accommodate two participants. A
typical conference room in an office would have the capacity to seat six
persons who would be able to ‘meet’ six people at the other location. The
arrangement of the tables and the overall interior décor including wall
color, upholstery, etc is designed such that all participants feel as if
they were seated in the same conference room.

The solution is actually a part of the wide
gamut of Unified Communications that include voice, video, data sharing
through whiteboards and might even include collaboration through IMs,
mobiles, etc. The technology requires services of the highest quality,
security and reliability for every meeting with a dedicated bandwidth of
about 15 Mbps per branch office. It’s extremely critical to have the
deployments of the highest standards with the implementation partner having
expertise of such large scale deployments. Here’s a quick checklist of what
you should look for while selecting your implementation partner:

  1. Determine the prospective sites that could
    benefit with telepresence.
  2. Check how far these cities are from each
    other. This would give an idea of the local skills of the prospective
    partner. Keep in mind that it is best to work with a single partner who
    can address your needs across all your sites.
  3. See the authorization certificate provided
    by the vendor of the telepresence solution. A global certification would
    reflect on the deployment experience of the partner and also help in case
    you have branches across different countries.
  4. The implementation partner should have
    deployed TelePresence for different industry verticals. This would show
    his understanding of requirements for different industries.
  5. Calculate the experience of the partner
    from the date he was certified. This would give you an idea of the
    technical expertise acquired by him over the years as a group and also the
    best practices adopted.
  6. Talk to some of the companies who’ve got
    the solution deployed from a particular implementation partner. This would
    give you an idea of how well the prospective partner was able to meet
    their requirements.
  7. Check if the prospective partner can
    provide complete lifecycle services for telepresence across the Plan,
    Design, Build, Deploy, Maintain and Manage stages.

RoI analysis
We’ve seen what Tele-Presence is all about and the minimum requirements for
deploying such a solution. However, the deployment costs are pretty steep and
the payback in the long term depends on how much and how well you use it. For
one, at current rates (a typical six-seater conference room could cost $300k per
office) only organizations that have large travel bills find it easy to create
the business case for adoption. But that’s not the end of the story. There could
be other indirect benefits that might interest you. Here are some of the areas
where you are bound to benefit:

1. Savings on travel and associated services: This is the most
tangible benefit of all and probably the most alluring one. Use of video
conferencing saw limited success but Tele-Presence is fundamentally different as
it conjures up the ‘face-to-face’ meeting experience in the virtual space. Sage
Research’s findings on the usage of a particular Tele-Presence solution suggest
that an enterprise could save on travel by upto $3000 per executive per month.

2. Improved Collaboration amongst employees: One of the biggest
drawbacks of frequent travel by top-level executives is a reduced focus on
in-house activity. For a better part of the month, junior colleagues find their
boss’ cabin deserted and run helter-skelter searching for guidance on critical
issues. Sage Research further states that around 78% of companies feel a
solution such as Tele-Presence would increase the quality of interaction amongst
headquarters and branch offices.

3. Employee productivity benefits: Frequent employee travel not just
costs a company monetarily but also causes a considerable wastage due of time
spent at airports, on road, checking in and out of hotels and the risk of missed
flights or delays. All this translates into loss of employee productivity.
Imagine attending meetings form the comfort of your office and the amount of
valuable time it would save for other more profitable activities.

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