Videoconferencing has been used long enough by some companies that IT managers have begun to focus on future refinements -- including high definition video and better audio quality -- to benefit time-savings videoconferences by educators, doctors, executives and investment advisors.
At the high end, Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard have focused over the past year on the realism of videoconferencing -- they call it telepresence -- with their separate systems. Both companies rely on strict standards for the networks they use, as well as special rooms equipped with proper lighting and furnishings to improve video and sound.
But several vendors focused on videoconferencing products, such as Polycom and Tandberg, are embracing high-definition products as well, while also allowing customers to interoperate with other vendors' products using the Internet Protocol.
Most recently, videoconferencing infrastructure vendor, Codian, based in London, unveiled a high-definition upgrade to its networking bridge, the Mult-point Control Unit (MCU) 4500. The bridge works with endpoints from other vendors and provides high-definition video at 30 frames per second. The flexibility and low cost of Codian's earlier product, the MCU 4200, made it attractive to Permira Advisors in London, said Carolyn Lees, IT director for the investment advisory company.
Lees has heard about high-end telepresence systems from Cisco and HP. But Permira found Codian's MCU 4200 to be advanced enough and flexible enough to work with video cameras, monitors and sound equipment from LifeSize Communications in Austin, Texas more cheaply than a costly telepresence system. Permira installed the 4200 in June in London to work with nine endpoints globally and expects to upgrade to the 4500 in January, she said.
In all, the company invested about US$50,000 in the MCU and US$9,000 for each endpoint, which she called "nice state-of-the-art technology for fairly little money." By comparison, Cisco's system could cost between US$80,000 and US$300,000, she noted, while HP's requires use of a special studio that might be inconvenient for users. Cisco's and HP's telepresence systems "sound quite spectacular.... But at present, we have the highest level of value that suits our environment," she said.
Codian was Permira's choice originally because it was the only product with dynamic endpoint bandwidth management, meaning an endpoint working on a relatively low-speed network would not degrade endpoints on higher speed networks. "Codian was the first to say that it doesn't matter what endpoint bandwidths you have," she said. Codian's interoperability also gave Permira the chance to pick from a variety of endpoints.
Permira has seen "big growth in the last two years" in the use of videoconferencing for business meetings between lawyers, accountants and consultants, Lees said. "Videoconferencing is never going to replace face-to-face communications, but if you can provide a higher level of videoconferencing quality, you become used to that format."
Gone are the days when Lees worried whether the cost of videoconferencing was justified and whether it could save money over travel. "Videoconferencing for us is in-bred and people have several videoconferences a day."
Ira Weinstein, an analyst at Wainhouse Research in Boston, said Permira might be the kind of company that evaluates moving to a higher cost telepresence system from HP or Cisco. The kind of technology sold by Codian, Tandberg, Radvision, and Polycom is usually for group videoconferencing sessions, while telepresence is a more expensive concept aimed at C-level executives.
"Telepresence is the country club of videoconferencing," he said, noting that a company purchasing an HP Halo system will need to build two studios, not just one, since the technology is proprietary. That cost for two studios and gear could easily top US$800,000, he said.
Some companies may eventually find that they need to move up to telepresence, but others will find that it's more than they need, Weinstein said.