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Sun 13 Jan 2008 04:00 AM

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Presence of mind

Video-conferencing is finally coming of age and catching up with the latest technologies. Brid-Aine Conway was in Paris for the demonstration of Polycom's newest video-conferencing product.

Once upon a time, video-conferencing was all about talking heads on wheels. A TV would be rolled into the conference room on a trolley and a head shot would address the meeting.

Interaction was limited and often led to confusion and misunderstanding because of time delays in broadcasting and receiving the audio and video. So interaction was avoided where possible, leading to video-conferencing being not that much different from watching an actual video.

We’re introducing this very advanced Polycom technology which will enable students in Washington and Doha to take the same class at the same time together

Now, welcome to the future, where it's all about presence - telepresence to be precise. This is the new wave of video-conferencing, riding the current tide of green- and carbon-conscious business to offer less employee travel - saving those carbon-miles, not to mention travel costs - and as close to "real-life" interaction as technologically possible.

Polycom, which has been specialising in unified collaboration for voice, video, data and the web since 1990, displayed its new telepresence systems in Paris in November. Polycom RealPresence Experience High Definition (RPX HD) products are designed to offer a conference or meeting event in high definition video, with surround sound audio and high resolution content that allows video and audio capture of participants, as well as data such as presentations, to be presented in "real time".

Instead of time delays and participants in different sites talking over each other, RPX should provide an interactive experience, where people are talking with, rather than at, each other. And so far, it seems that businesses are interested.

Robert Stead, EMEA marketing director at Polycom, says there are 180 Polycom RPX rooms up and running worldwide, and he feels signs are positive for a high uptake of the products here in the Middle East.

"I think there's a lot of things that are characteristic of the way RPX is used which work very well [in the Middle East]. You need good access to bandwidth, you need organisations which have expensive people who need to communicate a lot. The energy business in general is very focused on these kinds of things, the financial business is very focused for the same sort of reasons. We expect to see some positive things," he says.

Georgetown University at Education City in Doha, is Polycom's first Middle East customer, although "several others are in discussion", according to Stead.
Georgetown University at Education City is not affiliated with or sponsored by Washington's Georgetown University, it is a true branch of the university in that the degree from Doha is identical to the one received by a student attending in Washington.

According to Professor James Reardon-Anderson, dean of the School of Foreign Service in Qatar, in order to give the same degree to students in Doha, the university experience has to be as close as possible to what it is in Washington.

I think there’s a lot of things that are characteristic of the way RPX is used which work very well [in the Middle East]

"In order to give you the same diploma, we've got to have everything the same. On the other hand, Doha isn't Washington, so we have to do things to make this work in a different place. One of the things we're doing is introducing this very advanced Polycom technology which will enable students in Washington and Doha to take the same class at the same time together and to experience that class as though it's real. In other words, not just see a talking head on a plasma screen, but actually experience a common classroom reality," he explains.

Reardon-Anderson is enthusiastic in his praise for the Polycom system. The university experimented with sharing classes with Washington last year using plasma screen video-conferencing but he feels RPX is an entirely different experience.

"You can do it with a flat plasma screen but you end up with kind of talking heads. You look on the screen, you see the professor, you see his head, he talks, he looks on a screen, he sees a bunch of little tiny people and it worked. We were satisfied that, okay, it was a decent experience but there's no chemistry to it, there's no feel that this is actually a classroom experience, it comes across as a television experience. So we did quite a bit of research - Johnathon Chapman who is our CIO did a great deal of research with a number of different vendors and we came to the conclusion that Polycom was the best technology to apply this to the classroom," he says.

Unified communications/collaboration is a space a lot of the big technology players are looking at, because video conferencing has finally stepped into the future. This coming of age is happening largely on the back of the ability to transmit bigger data packages well and hence the ability to stream high definition video and audio live.

A market for video-conferencing has always existed because of its business and social benefits. Reduced travel expenses and the improved productivity of having employees at work instead of on a plane are obvious financial benefits. Cutting down on a company's carbon footprint is good for the environment and for a company's image.

But in the past, the products available couldn't take full advantage of the market because of their myriad problems. Now, Polycom isn't the only company to apply new technologies. Cisco's Telepresence and Microsoft's Office Communication Server 2007 are just a couple of the solutions that have recently come into the market in competition with RPX. Both Cisco and Microsoft are collaborative partners of Polycom, but they are now also competitors.

However, Polycom appears to be going about this competition in the right way. With its RPX running on Cisco IP telephony, and its phones supporting Microsoft standards in Office Communications, Polycom is offering the kind of mix-and-match marketplace that could see them pull ahead of the pack.

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