by December 1, 2008 0 comments

Employee travel on business is one of the largest component of corporate
budgets. And it’s the one budget head that’s causing many a sleepless night for
CFOs across enterprises, especially when they are scratching their heads
figuring out ways to trim expenditure. It’s easier said than done as in this era
of cut-throat competition and shrinking bottomlines they don’t even want to
refuse meeting clients and risk incurring their wrath or losing out on
prospective new orders. To make matters worse, employee travel only seems to be
increasing with increased globalization. And swollen travel heads is not the
only concern associated with too much travel. Such employees also end up
spending less time on their seats, which means less in-house interaction, less
focus on guiding juniors and an overall reduction in productivity.

A conference thru Telepresence.
Notice the similarity in seating patterns and color of interiors. It seems
the other side is sitting across the board and is part of one big hall.

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.

TelePresence 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.

One size doesn’t fit all. This
version of HD video conferencing is good for smaller rooms. But you can
still connect to locations having setups of varying sizes.

Technical specs
Almost all Telepresence 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 telepresence 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 telepresence 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 telepresence solution that
facilitates conference for six persons requires anywhere between 15-20 Mbps of
bandwidth. As collaboration is the USP of telepresence 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.

How to choose
the right deployment partner
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
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

Where you save
We’ve seen what TelePresence 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

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 TelePresence 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 telepresence 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 telepresence would increase the quality of interaction amongst
headquarters and branch offices.

3. Employee productivity benefits: Frequent employee travel not just
costs a company in monetary terms but also causes a considerable wastage of time
spent waiting at airports, the time spent away from office 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.

Telepresence in healthcare
Another classic and a very serious candidate for TelePresence adoption is
healthcare. Serious because potential benefits here would directly result into
saving millions of lives! With close to 50,000 employees and manufacturing
facilities in 26 countries, Baxter relies on effective and fast communication
amongst its technicians to ensure patient care of highest standards across the
globe. The company assists people with some of the most complex medical
conditions, such as hemophilia, cancer, immune disorders, and kidney disease.

Frequent call drops during teleconferencing and video quality that was best
left to cleaners, coupled with rising travel costs, meant the company was in
dire need to deploy telepresence across its various offices. This solution has
helped their quality assurance team to check the quality of products over full
HD plasma screens and provide consultancy online. Baxter’s R&D organization
conducts working sessions between developers and project managers in Austria and
California, taking advantage of virtual, face-to-face interaction to quickly
troubleshoot defects, perfect designs, and make decisions efficiently.

Back home in India, AIIMS has been using high-def video conferencing to offer
consultancy to remote medical institutions across the country. Although not
exactly a telepresence solution, their system uses high-def 720p cameras, full
64 kbps audio channel and 65” LCD monitors to transmit high-quality images
amongst connected locations. Such is the clarity of communication that doctors
feel completely at home even while providing consultancy for surgeries at remote

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