Carriers and enterprises have good reasons to worry about the advent of video and the extra load it places on their backbones, but for networking companies, it is an opportunity to sell us yet more hardware - and few are more enthusiastic about that than Cisco.

"Cisco is working very hard on video and wants to be known as a video company," says Marthin De Beer, the senior VP in charge of Cisco's emerging markets technology group (EMTG). "We think video is the next big opportunity, it is ripe for reinvention - for example, in cable TV or CCTV surveillance there has been very little innovation until quite recently."

Two big areas of interest here are telepresence - which uses specially-built meeting rooms, with three large TV screens and surround-sound, to provide a close facsimile of physical presence - and unified video communications.

"Connecting people to content is relatively straight-forward," he points out. "31 billion video streams were viewed across the Internet in 2006. YouTube is streaming 100 million a day.

"Unified video communications has not been done though - that's the idea of access to any content, anywhere. In the enterprise it's video collaboration, on mobile phones it's quad-play."

However, to do this the network needs to transform and transcode content for different devices. But he argues that there could be great benefits from adding video to the armoury of comms tools that can be used any time, any place.

"In the old model you have to choose which medium to try and reach people on, for example data or voice or mobile," he says. "Connected devices merge those."

Virtually there

Telepresence is perhaps the most striking example of a video-based emerging technology, though. De Beer says he uses it every day in his working life - he is based in Cisco's San Jose office, but his PA works remotely from the Dallas office via a near-lifesize screen on the desk outside De Beer's office.

"The moment you talk about telepresence, people think it's videoconferencing - and it's NOT," he explains. "The people are life-size and in ultra-high definition, twice the definition of HDTV, another difference is it has spatial audio, so sounds come from the appropriate direction. It feels real."

He also suggests a wide range of uses for the technology outside the office, from telecommuting to remote learning - perhaps even to watch sports in an environment resembling a box at a stadium.

"We also see it being used in the home with relatives - we allow employees to use the 33 telepresence rooms in our offices world-wide with their families. Our telepresence rooms are 58 percent utilised now and the figure's still rising."

He even claims that telepresence could break down cultural barriers, by enabling virtual meetings between people who do not want to be seen meeting for real. Cisco has donated systems to countries in the Middle East as part of the Clinton Global Initiative, he says.

There are snags to the technology, of course. Telepresence rooms are still very expensive and consume huge amounts of bandwidth - some 6Mbit/s if you use all three screens. And at the moment, they are only practical point-to-point and within an organisation.

That will change though, according to De Beer. "We will shortly enable multi-site telepresence too, and beyond that in the second half of 2007 we will enable business to business as well," he says.

He adds, "We are working on 3D imaging technology - it currently needs about 1Tbit/s of bandwidth though! It may be feasible in five to seven years as the technology improves."

Other video-based technologies which Cisco classes as emerging include IP CCTV and digital media. Both are already taking off, according to De Beer - and it's not just networking vendors who could win big.

"One casino's deployment of IP CCTV generates 600TB every two weeks," he says, adding: "Digital media systems let business create video content easily and stream it. They can play to anything, including digital signs." Digital signs are intelligent flat panel screens, typically with Wi-Fi connections, and which can be controlled centrally.

Emerging technologies

De Beer says his emerging technologies group is Cisco's innovation arm, responsible for finding and nurturing new ideas that could eventually turn into major new business streams, but whose future is less clear.

Cisco is perhaps better known for its concept of 'advanced technologies' - new categories that fit into its long term technology vision, could grow to $1 billion in revenue within five to seven years, and are areas where the company could become one of the top two suppliers. An example is unified communications, which De Beer says is now worth $1.5 billion for Cisco, and is growing at 40 percent a year.

"Emerging technologies are those beyond advanced technologies, for example telepresence, IP-based physical security, IPICS and digital media," De Beer says. "They are ones we are not confident of. Once we're more confident, we reclasssify them as advanced technologies, and then as foundation technologies."

Most of the emerging technologies that his group invests in have come from within Cisco itself, not from acquisitions, he adds. A big part of his job is therefore encouraging people to come up with innovative ideas - such as using video for telepresence - and more importantly, to choose to develop them within the company, rather than leaving to develop them elsewhere.

"The reward is greater for people who leave Cisco and set up a new company then get acquired, but the risk is greater too," he notes. "We see this as complementary to our acquisition strategy - but that's not my area. I would never buy an established company or product, though I might buy a company for its technology.

"We often acquire or partner to get into new markets or technologies - we have acquired 110 companies in the last 10 years. But researchers will tell you that the best way to get into new areas is to create the new technology yourself - an internal venture means you can link it to your other work.

"We need at least 15 successful emerging technologies over the next five to six years, so on a 75 percent success rate I need to make 20 investments, which in turn means I need 1000 prospects or ideas. It's a big challenge - and it is as important not to get stuck on solutions that aren't being successful as it is to invest and take the risk."