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How to use videoconferencing whatever your budget

How to speak face to face without being there

The cost - both economic and environmental - of travel can be crippling to businesses of any size, and many are turning to video conferencing. But video equipment doesn't come cheap. Here we explain the options for businesses of all sizes, and offer advice on how to speak face to face without being there.

Telepresence suites

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.

Cisco CTS 3000 telepresence
Cisco has rigid specifications for all its telepresence rooms, right down to the furniture and lighting.

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 $340,000, the CTS 3000 room I tested costs $300,000, and other endpoints -- such as the EX90 desktop system -- cost about $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.

Polycom RealPresence Experience (RPX)

The Polycom telepresence suite looked more lifelike than Cisco's and is my top pick for large companies that require the absolute best quality for their virtual business meetings.

I tested the Polycom RealPresence Experience (RPX) High Definition 400 Series in San Jose. Interestingly, it uses 720p video instead of the 1080p video used in Cisco's telepresence suite, but it also runs at 60 frames per second rather than Cisco's 30 fps. At 60 frames, hand motions and body movements were just a hair more realistic than they were in the Cisco telepresence suite. (I also tested the Polycom's 1080p setting, which runs at 30 frames per second; although it looked more colorful and crisp, it was not quite as realistic for hand movements and other gestures.)

Color quality, which is extremely important for a realistic extension of one conference table to another, was outstanding. One participant had a blue shirt that popped brightly on screen. And the camera position is perfect for face-to-face meetings: I could look right into the eyes of a presenter and he looked right back at me. (The Cisco telepresence suite was just slightly off in this regard.)

The Polycom RPX 400 Series uses four 48-in. rear-projection displays connected in one long 16-foot video wall with barely perceptible seams between them. (There is also an 8-foot video wall option.) Polycom does an excellent job of syncing the lighting in each suite with the cameras, which are custom-made by Sony for the telepresence suite. This means there is rarely any flickering or lighting differences between rooms.

Polycom RPX 400 Series telepresence
Polycom telepresence suites provide an immersive experience: a 16-foot video wall, LCD monitors built into the tables, and very realistic 60-frames-per-second video.

Each suite has four 17-in. LCD monitors mounted into the conference table itself; you can plug in a laptop, which appears in your local LCD screen and in the other conference rooms, so you can share your screen with another room. (The "talking head" video of the meeting participants, however, is always only shown on the large rear-projection screens.)

For a yearly fee, you can have Polycom schedule meetings for your company and monitor the rooms to make sure everyone is connected -- there's an extra webcam in each suite for admins to monitor meetings. Polycom does not adhere to quite the same rigid room specifications as Cisco, though. For example, Polycom doesn't require the exact same paint for each room.

Like Cisco's CTS, Polycom's RPX works with Outlook and Notes for scheduling meetings easily. However, Cisco's back-end infrastructure is, predictably, much more robust than Polycom's. In my tests, the Cisco video links were always smooth. With Polycom, I noticed a few minor glitches with its video codec (the software used to compress video for network distribution).

On the other hand, Elliot Gold, president of videoconferencing consultancy TeleSpan Publishing, gives Polycom high marks for interoperability: "Today, the advantage Polycom has is that they are totally standards-based and interoperable with not just new systems shipped today, but legacy systems shipped and installed over the past decade."

Pricing for Polycom suites is generally higher than Cisco telepresence. The 400 Series room, with a maximum attendance of 18 people, costs about $600,000. For a room with two screens in an 8-foot video wall for about four people, the cost is about $450,000 per room. Monthly maintenance and support costs vary; the fees are based on the system you select and the support option you choose, from light support for major problems to full support for every feature. Polycom also offers lease arrangements for telepresence suites and says the pricing varies by the exact model and service offerings.

Bottom line

Who should consider telepresence suites? Gold says these products are geared for the upper echelon of large enterprises that do not need portability and can afford the costs of both the HD video equipment and the room customizations.

Telepresence offerings "represent the very high end of the visual communications experience," adds Jain. "If an enterprise has the budget, network and bandwidth, immersive telepresence can deliver a stellar communication experience with a quick ROI."

Whatever your budget, there's a videoconferencing option that could benefit your business, from firing up Yahoo for a quick chat with a colleague, to using a room-based modular system for a product demo or holding a formal 20-person meeting with executives in the Singapore office.

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