If necessity really were the mother of invention, enterprises and small businesses would by now have highly functional, standardised videoconferencing and collaboration technology at their disposal.

Instead, travel across the continent and around the world remains the dominant collaboration paradigm, despite the ever-increasing pressure of time-consuming security requirements and budget-killing airfare and hotel prices.

Back in the 1960s, the Western Electric Group demonstrated its Picturephone to a doubting world, and the world has remained doubtful ever since. That's because videoconferencing systems developed since then have remained expensive and unpredictable gadgets that usually delivered small, fuzzy-jerky video images, often uncoordinated with people's voices because of communications latency and unreliability.

When the Internet came along, there was hope that webconferencing might fill the void, even though it lacks the collaborative impact of video images, relying solely on shared documents, especially presentations. Webconferencing has not been very satisfactory, requiring reserved bandwidth, separate telephone hook-ups for sound and notoriously troublesome desktop technologies.

Of course, good old-fashioned telephone conference calls are reliable and useful, but they just don't cut it with people who want to do business face to face.

With all that history, it's hard not to be sceptical when news comes along of "telepresence" systems, video-collaboration technology that delivers high-definition video images and stereophonic sounds with enough realism to enable useful collaboration to occur.

Telepresence is expensive, requires two or more dedicated conference rooms outfitted with specialised equipment (or in some cases, custom-built to house the equipment) and often runs on proprietary network technology. But it's such a vast improvement over any previous video-based collaboration system that enterprise users are quickly signing up.

The set-up

Vendors as well known as Cisco, Polycom and Hewlett-Packard, and as little known as Teliris and Codian, are creating and offering telepresence technology and services. The systems they sell use a variety of technologies to deliver interactive video and sound signals that are realistic enough to make you almost believe you're sitting across the table from other conferees, rather than across the world.

Common to all of these systems is the use of high-definition television (HDTV) screens and cameras situated in such a way that conferees sitting diagonally across from each other can see each other directly, without appearing to be off to the side somewhere looking straight ahead into nothingness. The odd angles you'd experience with ordinary videoconferencing technology virtually disappear with telepresence systems.

Telepresence configurations can use as few as one HDTV screen or as many as 16. Screens are positioned to be at eye level when local conferees are seated, and the images on the side-by-side screens are stitched together so that viewers feel they're looking at one very wide screen. Speakers are positioned so that the sound appears to emanate from the mouth of the person at the remote site who is talking, not from the centre of the table or some random location elsewhere in the room.

As you might imagine, all that equipment requires a dedicated conference room. Cisco TelePresence systems are modular -- currently the more widely used approach to telepresence, because the prebuilt telepresence modules can be stood up in any room large enough to house them. Cisco has gone so far as to build custom tables that physically connect to the screen banks, which makes the room look a bit like it houses a circular conference table.

The Cisco systems currently come in fixed configurations including either one or three screens, and the company now supports conferences between rooms with differing configurations.

Teliris VirtuaLive systems, on the other hand, are custom-designed for each room they will be used in and tailored to reflect what they will be used for. For example, some rooms are configured as conference rooms and others as classrooms.

A typical Teliris installation for a small conference room includes three screens for participants to interact on and an additional screen for displaying the presentations used in the meetings. The remote-participant screens are positioned across the conference table from the live participants.

"The presentation screen is situated so that remote participants turn in the same direction that local participants turn to see the presentation images," explains Teliris CEO Marc Trachtenberg. There is at least one camera and microphone per screen, with placement of the input devices carefully engineered for maximum dimensional realism, Trachtenberg says.

Other VirtuaLive conference room configurations include many more screens, and meetings can occur between VirtuaLive environments with differing numbers of screens, cameras, microphones and speakers.

A unique VirtuaLive feature allows for any number of Teliris-equipped conference rooms to participate in a single meeting. "We make it feel like a circle by vectoring the signals from the various rooms around a virtual table so that everyone sees each other naturally as if they were in the same room," says Trachtenberg.

It costs how much?

Telepresence is an expensive technology, and only enterprise customers with large travel budgets can afford it. Once installed, telepresence systems are essentially free to operate, but it's the installation that'll get you.

A single-screen Cisco TelePresence system can be installed for $79,000 and a three-screen system for $299,000 per room, according to David Hseigh, Cisco's director of marketing management. You have to multiply that by the number of rooms planned for the telepresence network.

Teliris VirtuaLive system costs are similar, with a single-screen room costing $60,000 and a four-screen room coming in at $250,000. Those costs include access to the Teliris dedicated network.

But analysts and customers who have bought telepresence systems think it's worth the cost. "The technology is really cool," says Forrester Research analyst Henry Dewing, "and it has the potential to fundamentally change how people view videoconferencing and how they do their work."

Food ingredient giant Tate & Lyle has Teliris VirtuaLive rooms installed in its London and Illinois headquarters. CEO Iain Ferguson says that it doesn't take much to justify the cost. "A trip to Decatur costs us about $25,000 and three days of executive time," he says, and suggests that anyone can do the math from there.

According to Jim Kittridge, a Wachovia senior vice president and telepresence product manager, his company picked the locations for its first two Cisco TelePresence installations by looking at travel patterns showing there were about 15 trips a day between the company's offices in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia.

"The system is meeting the four objectives we had for it," says Kittridge, "which are to reduce expenses, increase collaboration among teams in different locations, increase employee engagement by keeping them off of planes and fulfil Wachovia's corporate objective of reducing its environmental impact."

"Think of it as a nice substitute for a corporate jet," says IDC analyst Nora Freedman. That comment is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Forrester's Dewing thinks it is realistic. "Figure that at Cisco, they've cut their corporate travel budget by 6 percent by using their own TelePresence systems internally," says Dewing, who is familiar with Cisco's internal usage pattern. "I don't know the exact number, but that's a pretty big hit."

Cisco's Hseigh puts another twist into the worth of the systems when he talks about his company's internal use of its 100 telepresence-equipped conference rooms. "At first, they were about 60 percent customer-facing meetings," he says, "but now, only about 30 percent of the meetings are customer-facing because we've changed how collaboration is done at Cisco."

Hseigh says that Cisco's rooms are used an average of about five hours per day. "That's way more than traditional videoconferencing systems get used," says Dewing.

Kittridge concurs, saying that utilisation of Wachovia's telepresence-equipped rooms is 45 percent after just 60 days of operation, which is above the company target and well above Wachovia's previous videoconferencing experience. "We have 100 rooms equipped with traditional videoconferencing, and utilisation has never reached 20 percent," he says.

Kittridge continues, "People are able to hold more meetings because they don't have the hassle of travel, and ad hoc meetings now happen that could never have happened if participants had to travel." Kittridge also mentioned a trainer in the company's HR department. "She is currently pregnant," he says, "and telepresence allows her to do her job without travel."

Ferguson added another dimension to the conversation when he related that one of the first things Tate & Lyle did with its telepresence system was do bring all the administrative assistants from each location into the rooms for a meet-and-greet session. "It changed the entire dynamic of their working together because they now had a better idea of who each other was," he says.