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Founder wants to make his TelePresence known

March 4, 2009 | Chris Payatagool

Telepresence_Tech_70.jpgPLANO - Sitting across from Duffie White, his eyes locked on yours, his hands reaching out to you, it's easy to believe he's right there.

But he's not. He's in telepresence, the newest generation of videoconferencing.

The 63-year-old founder of TelePresence Technologies LLC has been pushing virtual conferencing for more than a decade. Now, as travel costs rise and the economy sinks, it's coming of age.

The videoconferencing world is buzzing about his latest patented communications systems that transmit life-size, three-dimensional images.

But White says this is business reality, not gimmickry.

"It creates a way for people in different locations to meet on a daily basis with the sense of presence, and it is a more cost-efficient mode of operation," White says in his office on East Plano Parkway.

His booth has been a big draw at industry shows here and abroad, says Carol Zelkin, executive director of Interactive Multimedia Collaborative Communications Alliance, a nonprofit trade group.

2008_05_06_telepresencetech_duffie.jpg"Duffie's a true pioneer," Zelkin says. "Whatever he says about his equipment, you can take to the bank as true. When Duffie says his technology can do something, he means now, not six months from now."

White says his version is "plug-and-play," meaning it can be hooked up with any existing videoconference system and doesn't take extra network bandwidth to operate. One mobile unit functions wirelessly.

Systems by other companies, including telepresence leader Cisco Systems Inc., are flat in dimension, somewhat limited in screen size and, because of camera placement, participants appear to be looking slightly down, not eye-to-eye.

Sony signs on

Sony is so impressed that it's integrating TelePresence's 3-D technology and equipment with its high-definition monitors, cameras and transmission equipment to take on Cisco.

Cisco did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.

TelePresence is building the units in Plano for sale through Sony distributorships in the United States and 118 foreign countries.

"This system is the only one with real eye contact and the real 3-D look and effect," says Nuno Martins, Sony's distribution chief for Europe, the Middle East and Africa from his office in Barcelona. "Telepresence is about simulation of reality of every single element of the environment. This is the best system out there."

The Sony pact enables TelePresence, which had revenue of about $1 million last year and wasn't profitable, to run with the multibillion-dollar dogs.

"It just started, so we don't know how big it's going to be," White says. "We could get a million dollars in sales this year, but I'm not depending on that."

Ironically, the fortune Cisco is spending on marketing is a blessing, White says. "Now when we call on potential customers, they already know what telepresence is. So we can tell them why ours is better than Cisco's."

Last June, White was the keynote speaker - in person - at the industry's [email protected] Conference, where he was introduced to the 35,000 attendees as the "father of telepresence," having received his first patent for 3-D imaging in 1995.

But he's a concept guy, not a scientist or engineer.

White, who earned a degree in architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design, moved to Dallas in 1982 to produce multimedia marketing presentations.

When the economy cooled here in 1987, he moved to Britain to design and develop international visitor attractions, corporate communications centers and tourist attractions that involved three-dimensional imagery that could be viewed without 3-D glasses.

White made handmade cardboard models of his early 3-D designs.

Now, Ken St. Pierre, director of engineering, makes sophisticated computer-generated models. "Duffie is the mastermind who comes up with the ideas and tells me what he wants."

Coming together

Things are finally gelling for White's 5-year-old company - his second venture into this field. His first, also based in Dallas, withered with the tech bust in 2000.

In the last year, TelePresence Tech systems have been tapped for several intriguing applications.

An international brokerage and investment firm in Hong Kong has hooked up a dozen offices so it can have routine multinational meetings.

A Seattle health care company uses portable units to tie in its network of clinics with hospital psychiatrists.

The U.S. Army bought 11 portables at $30,000 apiece that allow military personnel to have virtual patient conferences with 54 psychiatrists using $15,000 desktop units.

The mobile units collapse into metal cases that can be checked as baggage on an airplane and rolled into a meeting room. They achieve 3-D communication wirelessly.

Big customer

The largest system so far is a $250,000, fully equipped and furnished conference center for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Fort Worth. It accommodates up to 11 people with one 82-inch and three 42-inch high-definition monitors.

After a four-month test, Lockheed decided to buy and permanently install the center, says Ryan VanGoey, who manages information systems and technology infrastructure for Lockheed. "Everyone who has seen the demonstrations has been excited to see how this technology enhances the telepresence experience."

White is working on proposals for other Lockheed locations and other major corporations. "This business will grow, but it won't be high volume."

What could create exponential growth is a three-year leasing program he's introducing this week.

Its least expensive mobile unit will lease for $500 a month, including two screens, a camera, a transmission system and maintenance.

Since it takes two to teleport, that would be $12,000 a year for three years. If technology advances, customers can switch out the equipment much as people do with cellphones by extending usage agreements, he says.

A larger setup using a 52-inch high-definition screen for life-size virtual bodies and a 47-inch HD monitor for charts, graphs and other data will lease for $2,000 a month per unit.

That compares with a purchase price of $52,000 and an annual maintenance contract of $6,000.

Manufacturing deal

White says he can handle increased manufacturing because of a deal with Regal Research and Manufacturing Co.

Its married co-owners, Gayle Glosser and Mike Powell, have been making TelePresence's equipment in their 200,000-square-foot plant since 2007 and are now 10 percent equity holders.

"This is going to be a big year for them," Powell says. "It's really a matter of exposure."

The couple also has a personal use in mind. "I want to put one in our home in Santa Fe so I can spend more time there and still talk to the people about what's going on here."



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