With more pressure on companies to executive cut travel budgets and reduce environmentally damaging air travel, video conferencing looks to be emerging as a real alternative to face-to-face meetings. Adrian Bridgwater looks at some of the vendors that are leading this growing sector.
In a market under pressure from low cost quick and easy Internet-based alternatives built around now fairly ubiquitous laptop webcams, Polycom's high-end products stand at the priciest and arguably most sophisticated end of the video-conferencing spectrum.
In addition to its ‘full human size' RealPresence Experience High Definition (RPX HD) so-called ‘telepresence'-style video-conferencing, Polycom also supplies a range of smaller and cheaper HDX (high definition experience) systems.
Now, in an attempt to position its products for the growing number of geographically distributed teams and employees who will occasionally work from home, the company is keen to promote its enterprise-wide video conferencing system and management applications.
Known as the Polycom Converged Management Application (CMA) 5000, the company claims to have produced a single application that is highly scalable as it sits on a dedicated standards-based CMA server. Where the product shines is in its flexibility; supporting up to 5,000 endpoints, it works with both high definition telepresence and legacy video conferencing systems. It supports an impressive range of USB cameras and audio devices for headset and speakerphone integration and makes only fairly reasonable demands in terms of the hardware requirements it needs for each user to connect.
The product appears to fall disappointingly short of support for non-Windows based operating systems and only lists its client supported languages as: English, French, German, International Spanish and Simplified Chinese. Hence, there is an apparent lack of provisioning for either Arabic or any of the languages emanating from the Indian subcontinent.
Polycom says its CMA Desktop PC-based application is easy to learn and that, once up and running, it enables a user to enjoy high quality video and voice communication along with standards-based content sharing. Clearly targeted at the enterprise market, the company is keen to point out that its ‘point and click' technology has integrated presence-awareness to allow users to verify contact availability and status.
The CMA 5000 is built with LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) integration to simplify management and ensure contact list accuracy. This function is typically used to reflect geographic and/or company-specific organisational divisions or boundaries.
Aside from flexibility, the product's positioning is most clearly explained by looking at its ability to be centrally managed and distributed. From the centralised hub of the Polycom CMA Server, Polycom CMA Desktop clients exist within a single video ecosystem that can also be shared by telepresence and conventional video conferencing systems. This gives the IT department the power to, potentially, build a solution that spans all video client environments.
Tandberg continues to hedge its bets in the video conferencing market based upon a strategy to provide as wide a range of solutions as possible. This Norwegian company claims to have one of the longest track records in telepresence and is closely positioned to Polycom in terms of its full room ‘full size' communication products.
Now branded as Telepresence T3 and Telepresence T1, both Tandberg's T1 and T3 products are built with high-definition 65-inch screens, the T1 with a single viewing surface and the T3 with a three-screen arrangement for wider conference rooms.
The company describes its products as ‘highly immersive' with cameras positioned just above the screen in order to engage eye contact in the most natural manner.
Tandberg's somewhat overly creative product literature explains the blue back-walls used at either end of a call made in a T3 room as being ‘Nordic-sky inspired'. Whatever its source, when combined with Tandberg's specialised lighting the company suggests that the colour scheme will create a feeling of ‘openness' and make participants appear almost in 3-D.
The T1 product does not come with its own dedicated wood-paneled communications room like the T3 and so is said to be more suited for executive offices or locations where space is limited.
Tandberg says simplicity with its latest products comes from a single button call up option that can engage not only the video-conference call itself, but also presentations on personal touch collaboration screens.
Tandberg's Telepresence Server intelligently recognises the type of system joining the meeting and gives each participant the best possible view. High-definition screen users and standard endpoint users are thereby able to interact inside the same conference.
Like Polycom, the company aims to position its products as flexible enough to work effectively with systems from other vendors.
HP continues its march to straddle as many subdivisions of the technology market as possible with its Halo video conferencing product - or as they like to call it, the Halo Collaboration Studio.
The company is keen to reap as much publicity value as it can out of the fact that the product was designed in partnership with DreamWorks Animation SKG. Unsurprisingly then, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has gone on the record to say: "It allows a level of collaboration and sharing of ideas that is head and shoulders above anything else we've ever had or experienced."
HP uses some fairly assertive language when talking about Halo and says that it is the only telepresence offering to offer a truly global, fully managed end-to-end solution - a statement that other vendors would perhaps take issue with.
That said, the product does boast its own private network designed specifically for video collaboration which can deliver fully duplexed audio and company-to-company connections via the Halo network.
Users can connect to multiple studios around the world at one time via HP's Halo Multipoint service and with the Halo Video Exchange Network (HVEN), customers can gain access to a managed network of collaboration solutions to use as part of their call ‘experience'.
The HVEN network is a fibre optic channel expressly built for video, HP claims that it provides exceptional connection for most H.323-compliant endpoints and comes with an end-to-end, globally managed service to oversee its operation.
It's full-motion video works around the globe in broadcast quality with "no-perceived-delay", without requiring expensive upgrades to existing corporate networks or mandating excessive charges for additional bandwidth necessary for a seamless experience.
With a similar three-screen arrangement to Tandberg's Telepresence T3 offering, a wide video conferencing room table is accommodated for. As you would expect with this product and those of the previously mentioned competitors, Halo comes with 24x365 support.
Significantly though, HP actually has a strategic alliance in place with Tandberg to provide the flexibility of utilising its standards-based video conferencing with the Halo solution.
The service already includes the capability to connect with other traditional video-conferencing endpoints running on other networks, but HP intends to continue expanding the Halo network so that it is able to work with other products that feature multiple telepresence and third party videoconferencing providers for better compatiblity.
Available in the Middle East but arguably not making as many headlines as those brands mentioned already is LifeSize with its Team 200, Room 200 and Conference 200 products, the latter being its telepresence offering.
The company is trying to differentiate itself in this increasingly crowded market by offering a particularly wide range of video conferencing units. Its telepresence unit isn't a pre-fabricated room in the style of products from rivals like Polycom or Tandberg; instead it can be installed in any conference room, using any desk, with any lighting, any number of screens and microphones and so on. At the other end of its product range, LifeSize also offers products for a small room and a more straightforward ‘at-your-desk' piece of equipment that users might expect.
The message from LifeSize is that telepresence is now achievable beyond the boardroom. As bandwidth restrictions have eased, new communications channels have opened up. Companies like LifeSize and others are keen to point out that High Definition (HD) video is now possible at approximately 1Mbps and DVD quality can be achieved at about 500 Kbps.
LifeSize Conference 200 is telepresence with full HD video, but the product claims to use around only one third the bandwidth of comparable solutions. It is designed for deployment beyond the traditional fixed telepresence suite while still retaining 1080p quality on a standards-based platform. Like the other products mentioned so far, LifeSize also provides for document sharing in concert with the video and audio streams.
Users can choose between telepresence mode and video conferencing mode, providing the flexibility to create a telepresence experience or to use the full functionality of a video-conferencing, including an embedded Multipoint Control Unit (MCU) with transcoding, to connect up to six people on-demand.
LifeSize has also provisioned for high definition audio by producing its own phone which it says eliminates echoes and has electronic shielding to eliminate what it calls the distracting ‘BlackBerry buzz' experienced by many conference phones in the presence of mobile phones and smartphone PDAs.
A cheaper alternative altogether
While Cisco and Sony also provide high-end to SMB-level video-conferencing products, there is a stream of cheaper and in some cases even open source technologies that are, for many, very workable low cost alternatives to telepresence systems.
In some cases these ‘quick and dirty' alternatives are gaining popularity because bandwidth is now supporting a far higher level of usability than ever before. So web applications that we are comfortable with such as Yahoo! Instant Messanger suddenly become very workable when combined with a laptop or desktop webcam.
Of course, these kinds of IM tools can be paired with products such as Microsoft Office Live Meeting to provide a hosted web conferencing service suitable for online meetings, training and other events. Coming in its own box (rather than its own room) this product is widely agreed to provide a fairly workable enterprise-class hosted service.
If you are Microsoft-phobic then there's always the free open source Dimdim.com that can host web conferences with up to 20 people. You could also use a service like Adobe Acrobat Connect with an IM-driven web cam and a hosted collaboration service like Huddle.net and would probably have a fairly impressive arsenal of connectivity.
Proponents of virtual world Second Life say that its online interactive environment is suitable for enterprise-level web meetings - but for most, this is a step too far.
There will always be some interest in telepresence, desktop-based web conferencing will get better, new generations will be comfortable working with virtualised worlds and, most of all, face-to-face contact will remain irreplaceably important. It's a safe bet to say that the handshake will not become obsolete.For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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