Cisco Systems Inc. says its Telepresence line of video conferencing hardware provides an experience similar to an in-person meeting, but a manufacturer from Austin, Tex. claims it provides a similar experience for one-third the cost.

LifeSize Communications Inc. says the LifeSize Room product, which includes camera, phone and codec, boasts 1280 by 720 resolution at 30 frames per second and costs US$12,000.

“Cisco provides a similar sort of experience except their system costs $200,000” said Craig Malloy, LifeSize’s chief executive officer. Although Malloy says LifeSize provides quality equal to high-definition television, Cisco claims TelePresence – which includes 65-inch plasma displays – has twice the quality of HDTV.

At a demonstration in New York, Cisco launched the first two components, models 1000 and 3000, of TelePresence Meeting. Version 1000, which costs US$79,000, is designed for meetings of up to four people in a regular office, while version 3000, which costs US$299,000, is designed for meetings of 12 people (six in two separate locations) includes three plasma displays and requires a specially-designed room. Both versions include spatial audio, designed to transmit sound of the other party from where they appear on the screen.

Charlie Giancarlo, Cisco’s senior vice-president and chief development officer, said his company designed the lighting and desktop to make users seem more life-like to those at the other end, adding Cisco sells the table with the system to ensure the colour is consistent in all conferences.

“We make everything but the chairs,” he said.

One industry analyst who attended a Cisco TelePresence demonstration said it’s difficult to get an idea of the quality of the product without seeing a demonstration.

“To be honest, I went in (to a demonstration) pretty skeptical,” said Zeus Kerravala, senior vice-president of enterprise research at Boston-based Yankee Group. “I’m not an enormous video conferencing fan.”

But Kerravala added he was “really impressed” with TelePresence, because the room setup, lighting and acoustics improved the overall quality.

“It wasn’t the same as being there, but it was awfully close.”

Although vendors will promote their video products as a way of avoiding travel costs, an industry analyst said the return on investment is not very clear cut.

“It’s hard to say ‘I would have traveled if I didn’t have this technology,’” said Ira Weinstein, senior analyst for Duxbury, Mass.-based Wainhouse Research. “That argument is a little flawed.”

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