Businesses can reap 80 to 90 percent of the benefits of telepresence via upgrades to existing videoconference gear at a fraction of what they'd spend on brand-new telepresence systems, according to an analyst firm specialising in unified communications.

"You don't have to spend £100,000 to get good image quality. You don't have to spend £90,000 to get a panoramic view. You can do this much less expensively," says Ira Weinstein, a partner in Wainhouse Research.

Instead, companies already using videoconference equipment can selectively upgrade it to boost the illusion that participants are all in the same room, which is one of the main goals of telepresence.

For example, audio, not video, is the most important factor in whether a videoconference discussion is satisfying, Weinstein says, so a business could pick the most used videoconference rooms and add £1000 worth of microphones in tabletops and speakers in ceilings to improve the sound.

"The moment you do that you will have a massive improvement in the experience, yet you spent only a couple of thousand dollars," he says. "You didn't have to go to telepresence to improve your audio. With a little money you can make a big difference."

Similarly, businesses can improve video by installing bigger screens to boost the size of the images of participants. "You spend £3500 on the screen and installation and suddenly instead of half-life-size images of people you can get full-size," Weinstein says. "That's a lot less than £80,000 or £100,000, yet you've made a significant improvement."

But there are those that want the ideal telepresence experience. Anthony Knight, a service delivery manager for Pfizer in the Netherlands, says his firm is buying into telepresence even though it already has 55 videoconference rooms.

"None is perfect," Knight says. "We get the room done, put in video equipment, and then there's no money for wall coverings and furniture. Telepresence includes the money to get the room right. You have to do these rooms perfectly."

That demonstrates a need for telepresence, but something less can be adequate. "There is a place for turnkey telepresence offerings from Cisco, Polycom, Tandberg, HP," says Weinstein. "But you don't need the telepresence level of communications in every conference room. What I'm saying is that you can apply those concepts to your videoconferencing deployments and enjoy a better experience."

Tweaking lighting, camera angles, décor and bandwidth can make a significant difference relatively inexpensively, he says.

For instance, telepresence conference rooms built by some vendors call for identical furniture, wall coverings and even room size. But the illusion can be maintained without buying identical tables and chairs and shipping them around to all sites or using lighting consultants to perfect the ambience, he says. Available seats conference tables at each site can serve just as well.

Corporations will find they want to preserve their videoconferencing gear for other reasons, says Weinstein.

Videoconferencing generally uses one screen per site that can be divided into many segments to accommodate images from many other sites. Rooms can vary from auditoriums with hundreds of attendees to private offices with one participant, so images of individuals can vary greatly in size.

By contrast, telepresence seeks a consistent experience at all sites so uses multiple video screens (usually three) to create a panoramic view of participants at other locations and to generate life-size images of them, he says.

"Videoconferencing favours flexibility so you don't get consistency," Weinstein says. "Telepresence favours consistency."

Because of camera and seating restrictions, participation in teleconferences is limited to six or eight people per site. Accomplishing this requires high-bandwidth connections - usually 3Mbit/s or 4Mbit/s - and a single vendor's equipment to all sites, which limits what sites can meet with what other sites. Interoperability in telepresence is all but non-existent.

Telepresence also offers a wide view of remote rooms, which are lighted, arranged, decorated and furnished to give the illusion that they are an extension of the room each participant is actually sitting in.

With videoconferencing, bandwidth requirements can be a few hundred kbit/s, and technologies can include dedicated links, IP, even dial-up ISDN, so access is flexible. Standards are well established so each site can generally connect with most other sites regardless of which vendor's equipment is used at each location. This makes inter-company videoconferencing possible.

Businesses that want telepresence but have a tight budget don't have the option of downgrading elements of a telepresence package, Weinstein notes. "You can't tell Polycom I want this for £90,000 less so give me cheaper codecs or cheaper screens," he says.

But companies with an investment in videoconferencing facilities have options to upgrade the pieces that will bring about the most improvement and approach the level of telepresence, he says.

"Your job as a conferencing manager is to find that balance where you're spending what you need to spend yet you're making a big difference," he says. "You don't always need the best of the best, you just need what will do the job."