So far “telepresence” – technology that gives participants in a videoconference the feeling of being in the same room – has largely been the domain of Fortune 1,000 companies with big budgets.
While that hasn’t exactly changed, companies are finding telepresence offers them other benefits than the conventional one of cutting back on travel costs.
As Toronto-based Rogers Cable and Telecom discovered the technology can save users a tremendous amount of time and hassle as well.
The firm implemented a “telepresence” system from Cisco Systems Canada Co. in Toronto to connect its larger centres of employment across Canada. These include its Toronto headquarters and Brampton site, which house around 5,000 employees each – as well as its sites in Montreal and Vancouver.
The rollout was aimed an enabling employees to “access [any] of the other locations real-time, and eliminate the need for scheduling travel,” said Mike Adams, chief operating officer (COO) at Rogers Cable and Telecom.
He said the company sought system that provided better communications capabilities than traditional voice teleconferencing, or and also allowed for some incorporation of media into the session.
“It’s as close as we could come to replicating a conference room environment without having to schedule travel.”
Just days after the system was set up, engineering management at corporate headquarters started using it to communicate with the Brampton site so they wouldn’t have to fight snarling traffic between the two cities.
It also made it easy to set up impromptu meetings, Adams said.
In one year, Rogers Cable found that its IT support group cut back on 50 per cent of its travel costs.
“It’s not only [that], it’s the time you save,” the COO said.
The bottom line, he said, is people using the system get “to go home from work and maintain a life – and the individual gets more work done.”
The entire company has access to the system, from call centre management, to the engineering network group, to IT management, to the business units.
At first, the system was used less than 20 hours a week; now, it’s being used more than 40 hours.
In the next iteration of Cisco telepresence technology, Adams would like the ability to hold telepresence sessions with third parties. (Cisco has talked about providing this service).
One challenge with the technology is it “currently requires a fair amount of bandwidth,” Adams said. But for Rogers this wasn’t a huge issue, as it’s providing its own infrastructure for the communications link (and also has a lot of Cisco infrastructure).
Telepresence market revenues are growing around 80 per cent a year.
And while the market has been around for a while, it never really caught any wind in its sales until some of the big players stepped in, first HP and then Cisco, said Ira Weinstein, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research, a market research firm headquartered in Duxbury, Mass.
Prior to that, the market was made up of small companies that offered products similar to those in the market today, such as Polycom and Tandberg. “You put a household name behind it, and suddenly you see some forward motion,” Weinstein said.
While costs associated with telepresence have made it somewhat of a large enterprise play, there are still niche applications where a smaller business can get value out of it – that’s just not the sweet spot.
“You’ve got boxes and displays and furniture and lighting – it adds up to a fairly big spend,” he said. “And then there’s the network behind it and the recurring costs.” While the cost isn’t necessarily a barrier, it’s more an indication of the target market.
“This is not something that a company doing $5 million in revenue a year is easily going to be able to justify,” the analyst said.
According to Weinstein, telepresence offerings can provide hard “spreadsheet type” benefits, such as reduced travel costs for hundreds of executives.
That has been the most obvious way of justifying videoconferencing for years – but there’s more to it than that. If you lose 30 hours of your life in transit, you’re not producing or delivering anything, he said.
Instead, you’re standing in line at security. Not only are you unproductive, you’re not reachable, and you’re not able to focus on other initiatives. A big project you’re working on with other people has to wait until you get back from your trip, for example.
“Telepresence is expensive, it’s got lots of zeroes on the spreadsheet, but the return is extensive,” said Weinstein. “So for people who need these kinds of benefits, it is very cost-effective. A Learjet is very expensive.”
All of the tier-one products would support an organization’s requirements very well, he said, so choosing a vendor usually boils down to user preference – much like you would choose Toyota over Honda (or vise-versa).
Perhaps the system has specific features or is available in flavours that you prefer. HP has specific room-size requirements, for example, while others don’t.
Polycom offers a four-screen system, while others do not.
If you’ve already got Polycom videoconferencing systems in-house, or use Cisco for your networking gear and telephony, you might be more motivated to go with that vendor.
The Cisco and HP products also require a lot more bandwidth, so a company has to consider whether their network is ready to handle telepresence or if they have to deploy a separate network.
They are a good chance if you’ve got a relatively solid wide area network (WAN) in place, it could probably host Polycom or Tandberg telepresence, said Weinstein, but Cisco and HP require a lot more bandwidth.
Variety is the spice of life…and HP has a range of offerings, from collaboration studios with custom walls, furniture and lighting, to collaboration meeting rooms for existing conference rooms, to two- or four-seat collaboration studios for smaller teams (bringing the price point down to US$120,000 per unit for a two-seater).
It runs on a private dedicated network and offers 24-by-seven support.
Cutting back on travel expenses is usually how the conversation starts, since everyone is looking to control their travel budgets as fuel prices increase, said Darren Podrabsky, marketing manager for HP Halo Collaborative Solutions.
But even more important is helping a company be more efficient and effective in making critical decisions, or in getting a product to market faster. “The challenge is to sit down with the customer and walk them through that,” he said. “Often they don’t have processes in place to be able to track that.”
Customers must invest in the cost of the studio, and then pay a monthly service fee.
Some of its target customers include executives or critical decision-makers who have a need to collaborate with key employees or partners around the world.
“They want a solution that is immersive, that really works,” HP’s Podrabsky said.
Users could range from engineers who want to share computer aided design (CAD) drawings, to advertising execs that want to share full motion video.
It’s not about meetings between New York and L.A., but between New York and Singapore and New Delhi and Sydney and London. And this is done with a point-and-click GUI.
Weinstein agrees that there are certain sweet spots, such as the high-profile CEO discussion. It can also be used for design, development and research applications to shorten development cycles and time-to-market.
“If I have to put these people on a plane, it will extend my time-to-market,” he said. “It’s not about getting the drug out, it’s whoever gets it to market first.”
Right now most telepresence sales are greenfield sales, the analyst noted. Eventually, he said, we’ll get to a point where the first round of deployments are done and we’ll shift over to the secondary rounds
He predicted that over time such products would become less expensive and we’ll get “telepresence on a budget.”