Virtual meetings get real

Expensive telepresence systems create a face-to-face illusion, but HD and desktop quality is also on the rise<@VM>Checklist: Videoconferencing systems<@VM>Sidebar: Resources

VIDEOCONFERENCING, once a privilege used by military commanders
and agency executives, has gone mainstream. It is now commonly used
for legally mandated training for first responders, telemedicine
for veterans and prisoners, and remote court arraignments. Agencies
are giving it a central role in distance learning, disaster
recovery and telecommuting strategies, and efforts to improve
interagency collaboration and speed decision-making.


Videoconferencing is also one of the few information
technologies of which government was an early adopter, most notably
in the Defense Department and other national security agencies.


'Government was leading the charge for the first few
years,' said Jeff Prestel, general manager of the Video
Business Unit at BT Conferencing, an integrator and managed
services provider. 'The rest of the world has caught
up.'


The broad geographic reach of many federal agencies makes
videoconferencing a natural fit. For example, the Army Management
Staff College at Fort Belvoir, Va., which trains civilian and
military leaders, uses it for conferencing and distributed
learning, having converted an analog system to Tandberg Gatekeepers
and 1,700 desktop PC units early last year.


'The technology allows us to reach out in a virtual way
anywhere in the world,' said Pamela Raymer, dean of
academics. The college trains garrison commanders and provides
assistance to deployed commanders who can draw on the
problemsolving skills of experts. 'What we end up being is
sort of an adjunct staff to them,' said Col. Garland
Williams, commandant of the college.


Meanwhile, videoconferencing is growing faster than the overall
IT industry. Research firm Frost and Sullivan pegs the North
American market at $724 million last year, up 29 percent compared
to the previous year.


Real deal


The recent buzz is over telepresence, which is video and audio
so realistic that they create the illusion of being in the same
room. No small feat of technology, telepresence demands the best
high-definition screens. Those screens typically have 1,080-line
resolution, spatial audio (a sort of location-sensitive stereo),
unobtrusive user interfaces, intelligent controls, and cameras and
microphones ' sometimes robotized ' that pick up the
aural and visual cues that are key elements of face-to-face
communication.


Two vendors, Polycom and Tandberg, have introduced telepresence
products in recent months. In October, Tandberg unveiled the
Telepresence T3, a complete, carefully engineered immersive room.
It also introduced a single-monitor version, the T1.
Polycom's entries are the RealPresence Experience, a whopper
of a system with displays as large as 16 feet wide that can
accommodate as many as 28 participants, and the smaller
TelePresence Experience.


Telepresence manufacturers strive to make their equipment seem
to disappear. 'Our ultimate goal is to make sure you have the
feeling you are in the same room as someone else, and there's
no technology between you,' said Sean Lessman, senior
director of advanced technology at Tandberg Federal.


Tandberg has been moving toward higher-resolution screens and
making the user interface easier. Some systems even have virtual
tables, Prestel said. 'When you're in it, in about 30
seconds, you forget that you are on video,' he said.


The new 500-pound gorilla of telepresence is Cisco TelePresence.
'Cisco has totally changed the game,' Prestel said,
adding that the company might be the only vendor large enough to
create a market for the technology. 'They've got
customers thinking about an alternative way of using
videoconferencing' and they've legitimized
it.'


Cisco TelePresence rooms list for $33,900 for a one- or
two-person, single-panel system for private offices to $340,000 for
the 18-person, three-panel version. Prestel said he hasn't
sold any to a government agency but expects to soon. Corporate
customers gravitate to the $299,000 eight-seat, three-panel model.
He said his federal base has begun expanding from defense-related
agencies to civilian agencies, and state governments like video for
telemedicine, distance learning, and judicial arraignments '
most of it on traditional, standard-definition video, and some on
HD. 'Telepresence has not caught on yet with government at
any level,' Prestel said.


Organizational cultures might have to shift from outdated
perceptions of videoconferencing for telepresence to take off in
government, said Dave Rubal, Cisco's regional manager of
Federal Unified Communications. 'People really need to see
telepresence to understand the difference,' Rubal said.
'It's not the same experience.'


Basics and bandwidth


Although vendors such as Cisco say even immersive rooms promise
quick payback, telepresence comes at a price several times that of
HD What's more, desktop appliances, software and even webcams
have improved.


How do you decide which tier provides the right price and
performance? 'If quality of the meeting is most important
' say a meeting between countries or diplomats ' and
where bandwidth is readily available, telepresence is a better
option,' said Roopam Jain, an analyst at Frost and Sullivan.
'If the application is mostly for remote workers and data
collaboration is a key need, standard-definition quality will
suffice.'


HD doesn't have to be in an immersive room to provide a
major quality boost over basic videoconferencing systems and
chintzy webcams. 'In the last year, we've seen
increased adoption of HD-capable videoconferencing systems,'
said Ira Weinstein, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse
Research.


LifeSize Communications, which pioneered HD videoconferencing
three years ago, recently released Room 200, which brings the high
resolutions and frame rates of 1,920 pixels and 1,080 pixels at 30
or 60 frames per second (fps), and at lower bandwidths of 1.1
megabits/sec and 1.7 megabits/sec, respectively.


Moving up from 30 fps to 60 fps brings greater realism, said
Michael Helmbrecht, LifeSize's director of product
management. 'Sixty frames per second is like looking through
a pane of glass,' Helmbrecht said. 'When something
moves, you don't get any blurring' or latency that can
cause people to talk over each other.


Vendors are seeking to fit video into so-called unified
communications platforms that include voice and data. On the
interoperability level, they are adding support for
Microsoft's Office Communication Server (OCS) and for public
branch exchange (PBX) and voice-over-IP hardware from companies
such as Avaya, Cisco, and Nortel.


Polycom offers VC2, a suite of products, including a
provisioning server, individualized video portals, and firewall
traversal. The idea 'is to have visual communication be part
of a person's everyday workflow'to make it like
e-mail,' said Laura Shay, director of product marketing in
Polycom's Video Systems Group.


LifeSize has a new transcoding feature that lets participants
calling from desktop webcams join a videoconference on a dedicated
stream without forcing the other systems to drop to the lowest
common denominator, a pitfall of other systems, Helmbrecht said.
'Everybody on the call gets the best experience that their
system is capable of delivering,' he said.



1. Ask vendors if they have complete portfolios of
endpoint choices. If they get there through partnerships, how tight
is the interoperability with the other company's equipment?
Beware of proprietary services and equipment that don't
conform to mainstream standards such as H.323 and SIP.


2. If you're handling most of a large installation
internally, consider products that come with automatic
provisioning.


3. Look for vendors with a global support capability.
Videoconferencing has a worldwide reach.


4. You don't need tons of bandwidth to get a decent
experience. Compression algorithms, quality of service and other
techniques turn even desktop video into a viable, conferencing
tool. Make sure products can support older ISDN infrastructure.


5. Check to see if your content management server
supports HD content. Equipment alone won't do it.


6. Remember that network access is sometimes political,
with centralized information technology departments guarding their
territory and collecting tolls on broadband. Play the game to
ensure the bandwidth you need for videoconferencing.


BT Conferencing
www.btconferencing.com


Cisco Systems
www.cisco.com


Frost and Sullivan
www.frost.com


LifeSize
www.lifesize.com


Polycom
www.polycom.com


Tandberg
www.tandberg.net


Wainhouse Research
www.wainhouse.com

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