Published August 2008
By Todd Luttinger
Designing and building systems to fulfill client needs.
More and more customers are asking systems integrators to create telepresence environments for their companies; that is, live, face-to-face meeting rooms that immerse everyone into the same room, regardless of place or distance. However, many use the term loosely, so it is important to understand what is, the technologies available to create or simulate a telepresence experience, and what systems integrators can do to help their customers become more knowledgeable so they can aid them in making the right decisions for their respective applications.
There are numerous definitions of “telepresence.” For our purposes, let’s start with the most widely accepted one:
• “Telepresence refers to a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect, at a location other than their true location.”
This definition, provided by Wikipedia, essentially sums up the telepresence experience. If you notice, however, “set of technologies” is not specifically defined: those technologies required to make telepresence a highly functional videoconferencing system—which is essentially what it is—with the added value of an environment that gives the illusion of being in the same place at the same time, with others who are not physically in the room.
There is, of course, more to telepresence than just the environment: The video network and operational services, overall quality of the video and audio in the environment, and ease of use are just a sampling of the critical elements required to create a true telepresence experience.
Many businesses offer a diverse range of technologies designed to build a telepresence environment. Some of these technologies now include standards-based (i.e., H.323 or H.264) “kitted” or “off-the shelf” systems offered by the large equipment manufacturers, such as Hewlett Packard (HP), Cisco and Teliris that typically carry a high price tag, or lower-cost alternatives available from traditional videoconferencing providers including Polycom, Tandberg and LifeSize.
However, it is important to note that the basic technology building blocks have not changed significantly since the advent of fully integrated videoconferencing rooms in the 1980s, when systems integrators began creating custom boardrooms for large organizations using complex video codecs, display technology (plasma, LCD or rear projection), microphones, speakers, lighting, network connectivity, control systems and data collaboration peripherals.
The difference is that, today, the technology has matured to include enhancements to these fundamental technologies, such as broadcast-quality codecs (MPEG2 and MPEG4); advances in audio technology, such as wireless capability; smarter microphones that are immune, or at least much less sensitive, to BlackBerry and cell phone interference and provide more sophisticated amplification.
Identifying A Solution
In any telepresence solution, systems integrators must consider a variety of factors as they relate to a customer. Does the client require a completely immersive environment or a partially immersive one? Is a kitted solution appropriate or does the room require a custom application? The number and size of the displays to be deployed, as well as room furnishings, will also play an important part in this decision.
The common denominator with all telepresence offerings to date is the Video Network Operations Center (VNOC)/Concierge Service that allows for little or no need for the customer in the room to do anything except schedule the meeting.
There are a few steps that integrators can take to guide customers toward the right decision when it comes to telepresence:
• Listen: First and foremost, as should be done with any system recommendation, listen to the customer and his needs, because telepresence may not be the correct solution.
• Evaluate needs: Determine the number of sites with which the customer has to connect at any one time. (Currently, bridging telepresence systems is not really an option. Telepresence manufacturers often bridge standards-based codecs with MPEG2 or MPEG4 codecs, but this diminishes the experience.)
• Assess the network: Will the existing network support the application? Bandwidth is a must for telepresence, because most solutions use MPEG2 or MPEG4 codecs. Some telepresence systems still use ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), but now most have the ability to use IP, whether it is an MPEG2 Transport stream over IP or straight RTP/UDP.
On A Budget
A systems integrator can design and engineer a room that is not necessarily “telepresence” by today’s definition, but can come close to the same user experience, at a fraction of the cost, utilizing current videoconferencing and audiovisual integration equipment offerings. However, it is important to recognize that some features may be compromised in the process:
• Video quality: As mentioned, telepresence systems use MPEG2 and MPEG4 technology. MPEG2 is a long-used standard among broadcasters and DVD manufacturers, so it is like watching a progressive scan DVD in HD that talks back to you.
• Audio quality: High-fidelity audio is based on full AC3 technology that is far greater than current offerings. Remember, broadcasters have to adhere to a different set of standards than your typical codec manufacturer.
• VNOC/Concierge services: A VNOC service is standard with all telepresence offerings and must be purchased along with the systems.
With these taken into consideration, it is still quite possible to meet the customer’s application requirements with HD-based videoconferencing and the appropriate integration of display technology, control systems and audio systems. Frankly, one could argue that this approach may be more conducive to the customer’s environment and the key users’ meeting “habits.”
The most difficult challenge for integrators will be overcoming the dedicated VNOC service offering, because often this function is as much a selling point as the quality and environment itself. But, if the integrator can provide a network managed service with 24x7 support and help line as a bundled package with the integrated room, this could be a comprehensive enough solution that could compare to the VNOC at a lower, more economical cost for the customer.
When To Use
A ‘Kitted’ Solution
For resellers or integrators who do not have the in-house capability to design and implement their own telepresence solution or a “telepresence-like” room, then offering a kitted system is often the best approach. These systems, pre-configured by the manufacturers for easy, one-stop shopping, include the implementation and services as a turnkey offering.
Essentially, if the customer is prepared to forego room design decisions, has the space available and budget is not the primary concern, kitted offerings may be a perfect fit. Keep in mind that, with some of these offerings, a significant sized, open, interior rectangular room must be available for deployment of the telepresence system.
If, however, the intended users are insistent on meeting in the environment of their choosing (their private boardroom with custom furnishings, etc.) or have requirements for more participants than a standard telepresence room can support, investigating a custom solution is a must.
Best implementation practices for telepresence are, in many ways, similar to how a knowledgeable videoconferencing systems integrator would approach any custom installation project. Along with the design, implementation and support required for a typical room environment, a full network evaluation should be completed, because this is the backbone of any system, whether it is HD standards-based or telepresence.
However, in the case of telepresence, special attention must be paid to the network component, specifically when utilizing MPEG2 or MPEG4 codecs, because these systems require slightly more bandwidth (2Mbps minimum) dedicated to the system and are less resilient to packet loss when using straight RTP/UDP over IP.
Between SD And HD
Standard definition (SD) vs. high definition (HD) seems to be a question that typically is asked by many prospective videoconferencing customers. The simple explanation is that SD refers to the basic, square viewing format, much like that of traditional television sets. It is 640x480 interlaced, or 704x480 interlaced or progressive scan, both in a 4:3 aspect ratio running at 30 frames per second.
High definition, on the other hand, is the new, enhanced rectangular format and provides the
brilliance viewers now come to expect from their plasma and LCD displays. Both color and resolution are crisper than SD. HD has many different formats but most experts recognize 720P or 1080i and 1080p, both in a 16:9 aspect ratio.
In essence, the more lines of resolution you have, the greater the pixel count; thus, the better the picture looks. Most, if not all, codec manufacturers are, or will be, moving to an HD format.
Telepresence is much more than just the technology that drives it. All of the factors that make up the experience must be understood to deliver solutions that work. High definition videoconferencing, high fidelity audio, user interface options and support from the Video Network Operations Center must all be integrated seamlessly to create a true, “just like being there” experience, because subtle facial expressions, gestures and fluctuations in voice all impact the experience. Rooms must be architected to make the most of the environment and deliver all the tools and features necessary to make meetings, across continents or rooms, be natural and as effective as being there.
Todd Luttinger, president/cofounder of Videré Conferencing, has more than 30 years of sales and management experience in the telecom, videoconferencing and software fields. He held senior sales management roles at VTEL, Visto, Network Engines, Contel Executone and ROLM. In the early 1990s, he launched one of the first reseller organizations for PictureTel (now Polycom) at USTeleCenters.