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.

The network is key

Networking has always been the Achilles' heel of traditional videoconferencing, and it's still a concern with telepresence. If the video isn't smooth and perfectly co-ordinated with the audio in real time, the whole system devolves to being just like traditional videoconferencing. That's important, says Ferguson. "With traditional videoconferencing, you can only sit there for about an hour. But with telepresence technology, a two- or three-hour meeting is quite reasonable," he says.

For these reasons, Teliris has chosen to run its systems over a dedicated proprietary network. This approach requires the company to manage its network at datacentres in New York and London. "We have to have a dedicated network in order to achieve the low latency, high-bandwidth transmissions that telepresence requires," says Trachtenberg, who adds, "Unlimited time on the network is part of the package customers get when they sign up for VirtuaLive."

Customers schedule calls through a website managed by Teliris or make a telephone call to the company's "concierge" service to schedule time on the network. Both are available around the clock to accommodate the world-wide usefulness of telepresence systems.

Cisco uses a customer's own corporate network to carry its signal, according to Randy Harrell, director of product marketing. That's no surprise, given Cisco's basic router-based business, as it makes heavy use of a customer's internal bandwidth.

Scheduling is done through the conference-room scheduling facilities of Microsoft Outlook, which automatically slots the rooms to be linked into the conference. Initiating the conference makes use of Cisco's VoIP technology. A VoIP phone sits on the conference table and is used to dial in the other rooms in the meeting.

Making telepresence work requires a serious amount of bandwidth. According to Forrester's Dewing, these systems take as much as 45 megabits per second of capacity. "That makes the Teliris dedicated network approach attractive," he says, "because you want to have very high reliability supporting such an expensive system that will primarily be used by senior executives."

High traffic on a company's internal network or unscheduled downtime can give a telepresence system the same sort of reputation for unreliability that has so long been associated with traditional videoconferencing. "We just like the fact that the Teliris network is always going to be available," says Ferguson.

However, Wachovia's Kittridge says that reliability has not been a problem at his sites and reports 100 percent up-time for his Cisco installation. "I think you're going to see more voice and video signals going over corporate networks in the not-too-distant future," he says, "And network reliability keeps getting better."

Another issue with Cisco's present networking approach is that it is confined to in-company conferences; however, the company is working on a solution with major telephony carriers. The plan is to build out what is being called the Cisco-Certified TelePresence Network. Based on the Session Interface Protocol (SIP) currently in wide use in real-time messaging standards, it will ultimately become a public switched network to be used for Cisco's TelePresence systems on an intercompany basis.

Greater interoperability

Generally, telepresence systems use at least some proprietary video and other multimedia technology, and some operate on proprietary networks. But in early June, Teliris launched its Telepresence Gateway, which it claims is the first product that allows interoperation between competing telepresence systems. The gateway now enables VirtuaLive customers to connect to Tandberg and Polycom systems, but Teliris plans to extend the list to Cisco, HP and other vendors' telepresence systems. Forrester's Dewing sees the Telepresence Gateway as a first step toward some sort of industry-wide standardisation.

Telepresence Gateway can also communicate with traditional videoconference technologies, such as those offered by Polycom, and web conferencing technologies such as WebEx and Microsoft's LiveMeeting. Teleris also offers WebConnect, a web-based telepresence product that enables a conference participant who is unable to be at a VirtuaLive-equipped site to join a conference. As Dewing points out, you don't need expensive telepresence for applications like telecommuting, but linking traditional systems into telepresence systems can give those applications a boost.

The bottom line

So, how many companies are actually buying telepresence systems? Cisco's Harrell wouldn't share numbers but said that the company's TelePresence systems sales are growing far more rapidly than the company had expected. For its part, Teliris claims that its customers added 50 new telepresence rooms in the second quarter of this year, and now has customer installations in 20 countries.

Well and good, but what is the real potential of telepresence? According to Dewing, it could be large, but the gating factor is cost. "The systems are currently used mostly at the executive level, but that's starting to change," he says, "and they'll actually get into widespread use once the cost comes down from the present lofty levels."

How far down can they really go, given the reliance on custom technology? Dewing thinks more standards will emerge, as well as the technology to go with them. "It'll never get to $10,000 per room," he says, "but it will come down a lot."

John Dickinson's telepresence experience

I'm usually sceptical of new products, especially when one is described as "breakthrough" technology. Most never make it past the press release, and so many that do are really just decent products doing what they were designed to do. So, given the lousy track record of video- and web-based conferencing and collaboration technologies, I was very sceptical when a Teliris representative invited me to try out the company's "breakthrough" telepresence-based VirtuaLive system.

"It's different," she promised, and she was right. From the moment I walked in the room and saw how VirtuaLive was set up, I was impressed by the quality of the images and sound, but mostly by the realism that the system brought to the meeting. I was in San Francisco looking straight into the eyes of people in New York, and it felt like they were just across the table. They were the right size to be seated across that table, their voices seemed to come directly from their mouths and they sounded completely natural, not at all artificial in the manner of so many remote sound systems.

My good impressions were firmed up when I got a look at Cisco's TelePresence system at the company's headquarters in San Jose. The system's modular configuration is quite functional and makes a virtual oval conference room table come alive. The Cisco system's gaze angle is not quite as natural as the Teliris one because the focus of the system is on the person sitting in the centre, but otherwise, it's just as realistic as Teliris VirtuaLive.

I later joined a conference using the Teliris WebConnect system from my home office. The required telephone hook-up was as awkward as in any other web-based system, but the multiscreen image successfully mimicked the VirtuaLive conference room set-up, with motion on the screens that was very nearly as smooth -- the difference is that you're looking at a much smaller format.

Marc Trachtenberg bristles when anyone classifies VirtuaLive or any telepresence system as videoconferencing because he doesn't want it to be associated with such a flawed technology. But videoconferencing-based collaboration is what telepresence is all about, and it's awfully good at it.