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Telepresence Interoperability - Deal With It!

August 27, 2008 | Chris Payatagool
Sagee_Ben-Zedeff.jpgBy Sagee Ben-Zedeff 

No one can deny the big buzz over telepresence. But hype or revolution, it seems that telepresence vendors are focused mainly on increasing the sales of their high-end systems rather than interconnecting them to allow for cross-vendor conferencing. According to Glowpoint CEO Michael Brandofino, leading telepresence vendors are putting it off saying "we'll deal with it later", but seriously endanger the reputation of the entire technology.

Cisco and HP, two of the biggest telepresence vendors, have been working with partners to connect their telepresence systems to legacy video conferencing equipment (Cisco announcing the coming capability; HP announcing a full portfolio). But no one is yet to announce interoperability between telepresence systems from different vendors, which yields isolated islands of communication technology with no bridges to be found between them.


Current Cisco Telepresence interoperability scheme.  Source: Wainhouse Research bulletin.

To connect these "clouds" of proprietary technologies, vendors will have to standardize, together with network operators and managed service providers, the way high bandwidth systems will interconnect across MPLS paths. This is, of course, because telepresence, as with all high definition video conferencing systems, strongly depends on bandwidth.

Still, the missing pieces of wood in the future bridge will be the MCU, the Babel Fish of video conferencing, the same bridge that today connects different endpoints together in multi-participant, multi-site conferences. In a similar fashion, the MCU could act as a gateway, a translator, between telepresence systems.

Multi-point telepresence. Source: Cisco.

What's there to "translate"?

Most vendors today use proprietary technologies in their codecs, forcing restrictions and rules on both the encoders and decoders. More so, vendors are using different call signaling protocols. Even the telepresence room requirements are not standardized and different vendors may use any number of cameras, microphones, screens and speakers, resulting in any number of video and audio streams going in and out of the system.

Therefore the telepresence bridge will have to transcode audio, video and data to facilitate each system, it will have to support all the different call signaling protocols and it will have to adapt to any room configuration. Similar to today's 3G video gateway, which connects mobile networks and IP-IMS networks, the bridge will serve as a gateway, with legs in each of the "islands".

Teliris modular Telepresence room. Source: Human Productivity Lab.

Obstacles in developing a telepresence bridge

This, of course, derives the two main obstacles in front of telepresence bridge developers:

- on one hand, they will have to be very intimate with the specifications of the different telepresence systems. As there is no standardization, this basically means working together with each of the vendors, despite the immense competition, understanding the requirements and means of operation, and testing heavily for interoperability. Although the video conferencing industry has gone a long way in terms of testing unified communication interoperability, it seems that the telepresence market is not yet there.

- on the other hand, a bridge connecting several telepresence systems into one BIG conference, would have to still maintain the same unified experience video confererncing users are accustomed to. This basically means that participants are seen and heard in the same way in the CP layout, no matter what their source is (meaning, from which vendor they bought their endpoint from).

That same "equality" should be maintained in telepresence, as it is a basic building block for any successful means of communication. The issue of "visual equality", says Hugh McCullen, GM Multimedia Solutions at Nortel Global Services, "is critical in telepresence. It's all about body language and seeing people", and so the question is whether a telepresence bridge can work "in a configuration that offers visual equality".


At the end of the day telepresence is all about the communication experience, with all due respect to life-size images. If one can communicate only within a given bounded area, big as it may be,  the experience is not really attractive. If an IT manager will have to maintain a second video conferencing deployment to allow employees to communicate with others outside the organization, the unified communication experience is not really unified.

Therefore, it seems that telepresence vendors should "deal with it" now, as soon as possible, in parallel to their massive marketing campaign and impressive development effort. The future of the future depends on it.

[via blog.radvision]

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