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Telepresence: More Than Just HD Video Conferencing

December 3, 2008 | Chris Payatagool
telepresence1_dec2k8.jpgHow do enterprises ensure life-size, high-def video conferencing and collaboration amongst employees and cut travel costs at the same time? Well, Telepresence might just be the answer

By Adeesh Sharma

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.

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!

Thumbnail image for Polycom_RPX_Screen.jpgA 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.

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.

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 requirements:

    * H.264 video codecs to offer highest quality compression.
    * Native 720p and 1080p high-definition cameras with pan, tilt and zoom functionality.
    * 65 inch plasma screens.
    * Native 720p and 1080p high-definition encoding/decoding of audio/video signals.
    * IP-based conference phone with call scheduling and presence detection abilities.
    * 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 decor 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.

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 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 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 locations.

[via PCQuest]

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