What is Cisco Telepresence and what does it take?

If you are like me, you have probably heard about Cisco’s Telepresence video conferencing system but probably didn’t realize that it was much more than a regular video conferencing suite. Sure, I had seen Cisco Telepresence on the TV show “24” and it looked pretty neat but I didn’t envision the scope of what is behind it.

What isn’t Cisco Telepresence?

Recently my local Cisco Account Manager came by and asked me if we did any video conferencing. I said “wait, you are going to try to talk me into one of those Telepresence Suites from TV, aren’t you”. He said, “no” but proceeded to tell me all about it. It was intriguing but I also realized that it wasn’t within the reach of my company – even though we are a large company. Today, a Cisco Telepresence Suite may only be practical for the largest of the large companies.

I have evaluated a number of video conferencing systems in my time. On the more expensive side, most of these were a dedicated unit that mounted in a room. There was a TV and a camera. The camera transmitted the images of the people in the room over dedicated circuits. All of this was, say $15,000 for the equipment on each side of the video link plus the dedicated circuits that connect the two locations. For full motion video and quality audio, you need a fair amount of bandwidth, such as a 512Kb or T1 circuit. While Cisco’s Telepresence is similar in concept to what I just described, in reality, it is so different that perhaps they shouldn’t even be compared.

How is Cisco Telepresence different?

If you are like me, the price tag of the video conferencing system I described above was pretty expensive. Well, like many high-end restaurants, I’ll just leave the estimated price of the Cisco Telepresence suite off the menu for now, and save it for the end of the story.

The Cisco Telepresence suite is not just “different”. It is extremely different. While they are both “video conferencing systems”, the Cisco solution is in a different league.

You see, with Telepresence, the people on the other end are life size (really). When they talk, it seems like it comes from their mouth. The picture is so clear that you can really look them in the eye. There is no jitter. There is no delay when the people move or talk. In fact, I have heard that it seems so real that attendees have tried to pass papers to others in the meeting, through the screen. Sounds like Star Trek, right? However, it is here today. I mean, the “President” on 24 doesn’t have to be the only one using it. Perhaps you can get your company to install some of these. However, before you ask the boss for his checkbook, you should know what it takes to make this happen.

The Technology behind Telepresence

So what does it take to create a video conference so real that you accidentally try to “shake hands” with the person on the screen? Let’s find out…

To make this happen, you will install:

  • Qty 3 True 1080p High definition 65” plasma screen
  • High definition cameras
  • Many Microphones and Speakers
  • Special Lighting arrays
  • Paint color of the room one of the “Cisco certified color recommendations”
  • Have certain size conference table – “one half virtual table”, installed by Cisco
  • Two 1Gb Ethernet ports in the room
  • Provide 2 to 3Mbps bandwidth per active screen
  • A low latency network with QoS and voice as the priority
  • Cisco Call Manager backend for SIP call setup and connection

Surprised? I was too. But don’t worry, you don’t have to install most of it. Cisco says that they do it all for you. Cisco says that, once it is installed, it works just like a phone and it is so easy to use that an IT person is not required to setup calls.

I suppose that the bandwidth requirement really isn’t that bad. I mean, to provide for my AT&T UVerse HD TV DVR, Internet, and phone at my home, AT&T says that they have 45MB of bandwidth to my house, run over my existing copper phone cables (I wish I had that all for my Internet). In comparison, the 10Mb you may need for a conference between two cities across the continent doesn’t seem that bad. In other words, if you can afford the Telepresence units, you can defiantly afford the monthly 10Mb bandwidth cost.


(Graphics courtesy of CNET, Inc.)


(Graphics courtesy of Cisco Systems, Inc.)

Cisco Telepresence in the News

Recently, Cisco Telepresence has made a lot of news. It was demonstrated before tens of thousands at Cisco Networkers 2007 in Los Angeles this year. I found that it has received a lot of press when I was doing research on the Internet. In fact, there is even a TV commercial for it that I watched on the Internet (but was supposedly shown on TV somewhere). Here are some links:

I can see why Telepresence is a hot topic with Cisco. Telepresence came from Cisco’s Emerging markets group. Cisco expects video to be the next killer app that will drive router and switch sales and network upgrades. In other words, they want to get business consumers to buy Cisco video conferencing gear (like telepresence) to help justify and drive infrastructure sales in the future.

At least Cisco is practicing what they preach. According to the Silicon Valley Watcher, Cisco is installing 100 of these suites at their offices around the world. They expect to save $100 Million in travel in the first year. Cisco expects sales of its videoconferencing equipment to reach $1B by 2011.

While video conferencing is a great thing, there are a lot of justifications done to try to get it implemented. For example, ROI by cutting travel expenses and “Going Green” by reducing travel and cutting carbon pollution.

How much is Telepresence going to cost me?

Finally, we get to the price. For the high end Telepresence suite that you have seen on TV or in many of the Internet websites, you are looking at $300,000 for a single side of the teleconference (or $600,000 for a two site Telepresence suite). If that is too steep for you, there is a “small” unit that is just a single 65” plasma screen, the TP1000 for only about $79K. But don’t despair and think that you will never be able to use this technology for yourself. Cisco has plans to bring its TelePresence to your living room within 2-3 years with a unit for about $1000 (according to NetworkWorld.com)

Will your network be ready? If not for Cisco’s telepresence, just for video and VoIP traffic in general? You need to make sure your network is prepared with low latency and QoS to support these increasingly popular applications.

In Summary

With business becoming more and more global, video conferencing can only grow in popularity. Cisco’s Telepresence suite is an amazing product that brings true, life size, meeting attendees to your meeting. While only the largest of the large companies can afford it today, soon I expect to see Cisco’s Telepresence products for sale at consumer electronics chains and installed in small meeting rooms and living rooms. Do what you can do today to ensure your network will be ready.

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