As the nation's capital prepares for travel chaos thanks to a 48-hour tube strike, BT has setup three high definition (HD) telepresence video conferencing demonstration centres.

The idea is to give organisations considering the technology the ability to try out the products from the main telepresence vendors.

The new centres are located in London, New York and Denver, and will feature the HD telepresence video conferencing technology of Polycom, Tandberg and Lifesize. Cisco will also be featured, but its video conferencing suite had yet to be installed in the London centre Techworld visited.

Telepresence refers to a set of technologies that aims to make videoconferencing more lifelike, by offering a total-immersion experience.

The centres will allow businesses to try out the video conferencing technology and support services from the various makers, free of charge, before they make a financial investment. Of course, BT Conferencing is looking to bundle its software applications and services alongside the telepresence systems, and indeed to showcase its Global Video Exchange, a service that allows Cisco TelePresence connections between different companies.

BT Conferencing describes itself as the world leader for supplying video conferencing systems, thanks to its annual sales of $600 million (£368 million). It says it is also the biggest distributor of Cisco, Polycom and Tandberg telepresence equipment.

"There are three main drivers why the video market is outperforming the IT market at the moment," said Aaron McCormack, CEO of BT Conferencing, speaking to Techworld from New York, via Tandberg's HD (1080p) telepresence suite.

"First is the return on investment which takes into account travel reduction; secondly the social benefit, as video conferencing is one of the best ways to reduce an organisation's carbon footprint and improve the work/life balance for staff members; and thirdly the strategic benefit it can offer, allowing differing people and department to communicate much more effectively."

According to McCormack, a typical high-end telepresence system with three screens requires a line speed of roughly 15MBit/s (or 4MBit/s to 5MBit/s per screen).

McCormack agreed that the idea of video conferencing has been touted for nearly twenty years now, and that a lot of old equipment is now gathering dust in company boardrooms. "Previously, it has been too hard, too unreliable with too many complex network issues, which has created a negative experience for many people," he said.

But he insists that more and more customers are now looking at the technology than ever before. "This is because of the evolution of the technology, plus the lower cost of networking," he said. BT Conferencing also attempts to remove a lot of the complexity associated with it thanks to its software products and expertise, he added.

He feels that BT's telepresence video conferencing demonstration centres "allows users to choose the conferencing technology they are most comfortable with."

And it is not just large enterprises investing in telepresence systems said Jeff Prestel, general manager of the video business unit. "We are absolutely seeing smaller companies investing in this technology," he said.

Going forward, McCormack does envisage that telepresence systems will move onto the desktop, but thinks we are not quite there yet.

According to Mike Landers, General Manager of EMEA Sales, BT Conferencing is also considering the possibility of connecting its centres to the public rental rooms located across the world that Cisco set up last year with Tata Communications.