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9/14/2007
03:29 PM
Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
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Telepresence at Home? Not so much...

Cisco recently revealed its plans do develop a telepresence system for the home market. According to a story by IDG news, Charles Giancarlo, Cisco executive vice president and chief development officer, the vendor envisions a single-screen system that uses a large HD TV for the video and taps into a home’s high-speed Internet connection. Later, Giancarlo said, the system could integrate with a set-top box and be delivered by the same service provider that feeds cable television and on-demand video into the home. Starting price: $1,000 (for the box that makes the conference possible—screen and network extra).

Cisco can claim this is “telepresence for the home,” but it isn’t. Cisco already makes this mistake with its Telepresence 1000, which is a single-screen offering that lists for around $75,000. And, basically, what you’re getting is a really nice HD video conferencing product. I demoed the system at Enterprise 2.0 in June, and although it delivered a perfectly good visual experience, it isn’t telepresence, which requires not just excellent audio and video technology, but also a specially designed room and furniture; careful placement of screens (plural), microphones and speakers; and a (usually) dedicated super-high-speed network.

A home solution that relies on the buyer’s existing TV screen, audio system and living room couch isn’t telepresence, either.

Indeed, the term “telepresence” has been seized upon by a number of vendors and service providers, some with a real product to market, others wanting to add sizzle to their existing offerings without changing the underlying technology. The challenge for the prospective buyer is being able to tell the difference.

Telepresence is a unique set of technologies and architectures that deliver a truly immersive experience to participants. This is achieved with more than HD technology—it includes the design of the room, the placement of furniture, the type and arrangement of microphones and speakers, and the life-like effect of multiple screens placed at eye level, with cameras, to ensure that participants feel as though they are talking to people across a table, rather than a continent. Those components make the experience truly unique, but they come at a significant price (hundreds of thousands of dollars).

A single screen set up in your living room six-feet from your Lay-Z-Boy doesn’t accomplish this.

Of course, Cisco has lots of reasons to embrace telepresence—it requires an awful lot of networking gear to support it. Indeed, chairman and CEO John Chambers recently said the company expects rich-media collaboration, or Web 2.0 technologies, to bolster Cisco’s profits for years to come. As he acknowledged, “It really loads the networks.”

That it does. But that’s no excuse for muddying the semantic waters. Telepresence is what it is; video conferencing is something else. Both can help virtual organizations compete—and both will help Cisco boost its bottom line. But unless you’re a high-powered Wall Street type or a Hollywood mogul wondering what else you can do with your multi-seat home theater, don’t look for telepresence in the home anytime soon.

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