First impressions of Cisco's TelePresence

Three 65-inch plasma displays create a passable illusion of a 'virtual table'

Cisco Systems' TelePresence 3000 is an awesome piece of kit, but then anything with three 65-inch plasma display screens would be. Still, there's more to the TelePresence 3000 than looks alone: it's by far one of the best videoconferencing systems out there -- with a sky-high price tag to match.

The centerpiece of the TelePresence 3000 is three 65-inch plasma displays mounted facing a meeting table that seats six. With life-size, high-definition video of meeting participants from a second location, the screens create a passable illusion of a "virtual table," with up to 12 participants seated around the same table.

Video of meeting participants is captured by an array of three cameras mounted above the center screen, each of them focused on two people. Microphones built into the table surface capture audio, which is output using a surround-sound speaker system that is mounted under the plasma screens.

Cisco gave journalists a chance to try the TelePresence 3000 on Thursday, using the system for a videoconference between the company's offices in Hong Kong and Singapore. The demonstration was conducted using video at a resolution of 1,080 lines, the highest supported by the system.

The result was impressive. The life-size video showed no artifacts or delay, and made it easy to relate to other participants. The resolution was high enough that documents held up to the camera at one location could be easily read onscreen at the second location. The surround-sound audio made it easy to follow who was speaking during the demonstration, since a person's voice was closely matched to their position on the plasma screens.

However, the TelePresence 3000 is not perfect. The high-definition video was not as crisp as that offered by high-definition television, most likely because of the cameras used and the need to employ H.264 video compression. In addition, for meeting participants to feel you are looking them in the eye while speaking, you must talk to the camera array instead of the images on the plasma screens. This seems nonintuitive but was easy to adjust to during our short trial of the system.

The biggest drawback of the TelePresence 3000 is the price: US$299,000 for two locations. A smaller system, the TelePresence 1000, which uses just one plasma screen, costs US$79,000 for two locations.

What makes these systems so expensive wasn't immediately clear. Cisco executives on hand for the demonstration said the high price is due to the processing power required for each display screen. However, given the widespread availability of low-cost, powerful computing parts and high-definition video components, that seems unlikely.

Moreover, the TelePresence 3000's price doesn't include the monthly bandwidth charges needed to operate the system. The system required from 9M bps (bits per second) to 12M bps for our demonstration. Cisco estimated that using the system could generate monthly bandwidth charges ranging from several thousand U.S. dollars per month to tens of thousands, depending on a company's location.

Down the road, Cisco hopes to see the technology used in TelePresence expand beyond corporate board meetings to other applications, such as telemedicine for consumers. At these prices, that's not going to happen.

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