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Which Telepresence System is Best? - A Telepresence Buyer's Guide from the HPL

March 6, 2008 | HSL

BG_TP_Montage.jpg U.S. News and World Report has published a superb article on telepresence by Liz Wolgemuth entitled: "Telepresence" Enhances Video Conferencing. In that article, Wolgemuth quotes me on a variety of telepresence topics. There was one quote which I felt needed to be expanded upon:

"Cisco competes with HP, Polycom, Teliris, and other entries in the telepresence market. The larger companies all make similar systems at slightly varying prices," says Howard Lichtman, who runs both a research consultancy, the Human Productivity Lab, and a publishing arm called Telepresence Options in Ashburn, Va.

I was referring to the current prominence of flat-panel display technology and the degree of realism among many of the leading telepresence group systems. The reality is that the differences between vendors is vast and competing standards, inter-networking strategies, unified communications strategies, vendor technology road-maps, and other factors make telepresence a science and art of trade-offs: realism vs. price, quality of the environment vs. replicability, features vs. ease-of-use, international reliability vs. cost, security vs. utility, existing offering vs. technology roadmap, etc.

The "slightly varying price points" is inaccurate because the price of telepresence is actually all over the board.  The base cost of a telepresence group system can run the gamut from $35,000 to $350,000+ but architectural make-ready, collaborative peripherals, lighting, furniture, and acoustical treatment for the room all add to the final price tag.  And we haven't even touched on the costs of telepresence network infrastructure, bandwidth, internal help desk and/or external managed services.

To provide some "News You Can Use" for the readers of U.S. News and World Report, I have taken an excerpt from our upcoming publication the Telepresence Options 2008 Yearbook. In this Telepresence Buyer's Guide preview, we address some of the questions senior executives and managers evaluating telepresence have about telepresence. (We offer expanded information as part of our consulting services, which you can learn more about at the Human Productivity Lab).

Human Productivity Lab Telepresence Buyer's Guide

What is Telepresence? Telepresence creates visual conferencing environments that effectively address the human factors of the participants to create a realistic in-person experience. Greatly improving end-user acceptance, telepresence dramatically increases usage, ROI and customer satisfaction over traditional videoconferencing.

While a variety of methods can be used to deliver telepresence solutions, they typically offer some combination of the following:

  • Life-size participants
  • Fluid motion
  • Accurate flesh tones
  • Studio quality high definition video, lighting and acoustics
  • The absence of visible technology
  • True eye contact, or the approximation of eye contact in group settings
  • Immersive and/or mirrored environments where participants feel as if they are in the same physical space
  • A consistency-of-quality between disparate locations.

What are the different types of telepresence conferencing systems?

Telepresence conferencing solutions can be generally grouped into the following categories:

Continuous Presence Group Systems - Continuous Presence Group Systems generally seat four to eight primary participants, although many providers offer solutions that can add a second tier of seating to the environment. The Lab believes the group system is the most important format for business because it most effectively replicates the traditional across-the-table business meeting in the usual and customary format.

BG_Group_550.jpg Providers include: Cisco Systems, Digital Video Enterprises, HP Halo, Polycom, Tandberg, Teliris, and Telanetix

Telepresence Distance Learning Classrooms - Holding from 18 to 36+ participants in an effective format for classroom instruction, distance learning solutions allow organizations (corporate or educational) to conduct  training sessions between their own internal locations and potentially other external locales if they are also connected on the same network.

Providers include: Polycom RPX, Teliris VirtuaLive

Small Group Telepresence Systems -Small group systems are sometimes referred to as "one-to-three" or "one-to-four" person solutions. These solutions are less costly, seat less participants, and can be mobile. The video codec is usually a standards-based traditional videoconferencing codec so they can be run on a company's existing network if the proper bandwidth is available.  Some small group systems offer an enhanced display solution that can improve traditional videoconferencing deployments.

BG_Small_Group_550.jpg Providers Include: ATK Services, Cisco Systems, Digital Video Enterprises, Polycom, Telepresence Technologies

Specialty Telepresence Solutions and Environments - These can include unique telepresence applications:

Cisco and Musion's On-Stage TelePresence Experience can project a life-size remote speaker on-stage around the world. Musion also offers solutions for theatrical and corporate events which can display larger than life real or animated characters on-stage as well.

DVE's telepresence podium, which can project a life-size and life-like image of a speaker into one or more locations and some of their solutions double as 3-D visualization platforms.

The MedPresence MOR 400 integrates a telepresence capability into an operating room, allowing a surgeon to interact with remote medical students during a procedure.

Specialized telepresence solutions from Digital Video Enterprises and Telepresence Tech can be used for a variety of tasks including virtual banking and retail services.


Providers Include: Cisco Systems, Digital Video Enterprises, MedPresence, and Musion

Understanding the Total Cost Ownership and Acquisition Scenarios

When an organization contemplates a telepresence solution, it must first decide between a number of options:

    * Purchasing an end-to-end managed service (such as Polycom's RPX, the HP Halo Collaboration Studio, or Teliris VirtuaLive)

    * Buying telepresence end-points from a vendor but Managed Services from organizations that specialize in supporting telepresence (I.E. BT Conferencing, Iformata Communications, Glowpoint, and Nortel Multimedia Services).

    * Building an internal telepresence capability. For a couple of locations this can be as easy as ensuring that you have the right amount of bandwidth/Quality-of-Service (QoS) between sites, architect your LAN correctly, and having someone trained for glitches. For a global multi-national with dozens of systems, this can mean building the right telepresence network infrastructure (MCUs, Switches, Gatekeepers,etc.), re-architecting the network / bringing in an overlay network, and staffing up a 24 x 7 help desk.  This is where consultants like the Human Productivity Lab or professional services shops like Verizon Business can help.


Building your own telepresence capability means getting and supporting the right video infrastructure. Since no single provider currently offers a complete range of telepresence solutions, it is conceivable that an organization might deploy a mix of vendors and system types.


-Six seat continuous presence group systems for collaboration between offices and to connect with vendors, customers and/or joint venture partners
-28 or 36 seat distance learning environments for training and large groups
-Desktop telepresence solutions for the offices of senior executive
-Specialty applications like retail kiosks, telepresence help desk, or virtual subject matter expert

For the sake of simplicity, we will break these options down between End-to-End Managed Services and Custom Integration.

Managed Services - End-to-End & Service/Support


Managed Services provide access to 24x7 reservations, help desk, and video infrastructure. Typically, managed service providers break their costs down into two components:

-Upfront Costs: End-to-end providers like HP Halo and Polycom provide the systems including: the electronics, furniture, lighting, acoustical treatments, etc., a site survey for each location prior to installation, and the on-site installation of the system. If you are purchasing systems from one vendor and managed services from providers that specialize in supporting telepresence like Iformata or Nortel then initial charges might include network cross connect fees or professional services to enable the ability to use Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes for scheduling the rooms. 

-Recurring Costs: an IP overlay network, a telepresence CoIN connection, 24x7x365 concierge, help desk and reservation services, and/or on-site equipment maintenance.  If you are co-locating gear at a carrier-neutral, meet-me facility like telx to reach multiple telepresence and videoconferencing networks, then you would expect to pay for rack space and bandwidth.

-Additional/Hidden Costs: These can include: acquisition consulting, internal project management and training costs and facilities (some facilities require significant modifications and make-ready to accept a specific telepresence environment, such as moving a vent, removing walls or repositioning a door.)

More information:
Understanding the total cost of ownership for a custom, integrated solution is much more complicated to determine - the costs can vary widely depending on a number of variables:

Network Connectivity - Do you have the right type of network and enough bandwidth for the application or will you need to deploy an overlay network?
Video Network Infrastructure - Do you require multi-point capabilities and does that require additional video network infrastructure to purchase and support?
Custom Software Development - Do you want a simplified interface to integrate collaborative tools, storing and archiving of sessions, and/or streaming to the internet? Scheduling integration with Outlook, Lotus Notes, and/or a company web portal?

Capitalize or Lease?

After determining the vendor and initial number of sites, an organization will need to decide whether to capitalize the upfront costs or lease the equipment. Leasing can provide tax advantages such as an accelerated depreciating schedule. Many of the big vendors such as Cisco and HP Halo offer equipment financing.

So which Telepresence Solution is the Best?

Probably the question that I get asked the most! My stock answer: it depends. Unfortunately, telepresence is a science of trade-offs. Some telepresence environments excel for simple, high-quality, easy-to-use meetings, some as classroom environments, and some vendors for customization and collaboration options. Some are relatively expensive but highly reliable internationally and some are relatively inexpensive with some assembly required. In the same way that a company might fly a variety of executive aircraft for a variety of missions, you can also deploy a number of different telepresence solutions for different situations. These can include general internal meetings, connecting with partners, retail kiosk, virtual branch office, class room training, R&D, Virtual Water cooler, tradeshows and conferences.

Which solution(s) are the best for your organization can depend on dozens of different variables including but not limited to: How will you be using the rooms, how many locations are you planning to deploy, what existing video solutions do you have to work with, how would you like to inter-network your telepresence solution, and what is your budget for a solution?

Questions, questions, questions...

Here are some of the questions we ask our acquisition consulting clients to help us understand what they are looking to accomplish:

Modeling ROI & Usage

Understanding the ROI and modeling it for board justification/approval.

How many folks do you have traveling in a given month between your top 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 20 locations?

How much of that travel is international? Executive aviation? Captured city? Logistically inconvenient?

Do you already have videoconferencing? How much use do your existing rooms get?

Do you have an joint ventures or supply/demand chain partners that benefit from regular meetings?

How often are you flying to meet with those partners now?

Understanding Usage of the Rooms & Collaboration Tools

What kind of work will be done between room(s)? Software/hardware development? Project management? Editing Video? Classroom Education? Remote Subject Matter Expert? General Meetings? Merger & Acquisition? Pharmaceutical R&D? Corporate Training? All of the above?

Do you have specialized collaboration needs? Need to capture/share hand-generated graphics? Whiteboard interactively? Edit video? Share high definition images or video in realtime? Share medical informatics? Record sessions? Collaborate on documents and/or physical objects at a high resolution? Shared collaborative PC? Replicate documents in all locations? All of the above?

Telepresence solutions offer a variety of collaborative tools for a variety of situations

-Do you have executive briefing centers? Where are your subject matter experts?

-What is your Merger & Acquisition Strategy? Will a telepresence connection be a given in all future mergers and acquisitions?

Inter-Company Business Strategy

Many telepresence systems can be deployed on Telepresence Community of Interest Networks (CoINs), an overlay network that can connect your telepresence sites to other telepresence or videoconferencing sites on the CoIN. Organizations can also build extranet connections to partners and/or work with firms like Abovetel and IP-V Gateways that specialize in connecting IP communications applications on disparate networks.

Consider this end goal: How can we securely collaborate with the greatest number of our partners, vendors, and customers at the highest quality and realism, now and in the future?

-Who are your joint venture partners? Vendors? Customers? Research relationships? Outside counsel? Auditor? Recruiting firm? Advertising agency? Investment bank? Analysts?

-What telepresence systems are they using?

-What Videoconferencing systems?

-Whose network are they available over?

-What is your outsourcing strategy?

-If you were to connect directly to a partner for joint research and development what is your strategy for memorializing the creation of IP?

-Does your company provide training to end-users? Distributors? Franchisees? Systems Integrators? Do you run a help desk where video would be helpful or engaging?

-Do you frequently have auditors, professional services, project managers, and/or employees that frequently work on-site with your clients?

-Have you considered a multi-vendor approach (System & Network/CoIN) at key locations to improve your ability to connect with partners, vendors, and customers?

Network & Security

Creating an immersive experience telepresence requires a network optimized for video. Because of the real-time nature and delay intolerance of interactive video, simply throwing more bandwidth at a video codec does not guarantee a seamless picture so many telepresence users upgrade their networks or deploy dedicated Quality-of-Service (QoS) private networks to ensure quality.


-Do you have the bandwidth and QoS to support telepresence internally?

-Do you run your own network or outsource to a provider?

-Are you planning on upgrading your network or bringing in telepresence as an overlay network?

-Who is your current WAN provider?

-How long are you locked into your contract?

-What is your overall networking strategy going forward? Building/owning facilities or service provider centric?

-What are the InfoSec and Sarbanes-Oxley guidelines that you must meet?

Voice over IP (VoIP) & Unified Communications (UC) Strategy


-What is your company's VoIP & unified communication's strategy?

-Have you invested in or are you planning on investing in a VoIP or UC solution?

-How important is compatibility of telepresence with video at the desktop? SOHO sites? Mobile workers?

Videoconferencing Strategy

-Many organizations have investments in traditional videoconferencing solutions and want to ensure compatibility with their existing investment OR are interested in upgrading those sites to telepresence and/or improving the end-user experience/usage of their videoconferencing rooms at the same time.


-Are you currently using videoconferencing? ISDN or IP?

-How is your existing videoconferencing currently networked?

-Managed In-house or Managed Service Provider?

-What is the current Reservation System and Process?

-Do you own/lease/rent your hardware and video network infrastructure?

-What is your requirement with respect to compatibility with existing videoconferencing investment? Must be 100% compatible at HD quality? Must be compatible at the lowest common denominator? Are you evaluating improving videoconferencing at the same time and/or optimizing my existing videoconferencing rooms for connecting with my new telepresence end points at the same time?

Acquisition / Deployment / Installation

-Understanding what types of telepresence systems to deploy, how many versions of each per location, understanding time lines, hidden costs, and necessary make-ready for installation.

-What is your budget for telepresence? Who is going to pay the bill each month? Information Technology? Each department based on usage?

-Would you buy or lease equipment? Will you manage it internally or select a managed service provider?

-Do you have the required space in each location? Are you going to need to move an airduct or cut a power run or make other modifications to each space?

-How will you handle entry to facilities for off-hours meetings across multiple time zones?

-Will some locations require overflow capacity and/or systems dedicated to senior executives?

After the Install...Maximizing usage and measuring ROI

-What is your plan on Day 2 to ensure that your personnel are trained on how to schedule and use the system? Is there documentation in each room for using the collaboration tools? Connecting to an Inter-company telepresence and/or videoconferencing location?

-How will employees schedule time in the rooms? Outlook / Lotus Notes Integration? Company web portal? Concierge? All of the above?

-What is your policy for senior executives that need to prioritize the use of the system over previously scheduled meetings?

-If you are going to charge each department for usage do you have reporting mechanism in place to capture and bill?

Telepresence Consulting from the Human Productivity Lab


The Human Productivity Lab offers consulting services for organizations that are interested in deploying telepresence and effective visual collaboration solutions with a focus on overall organizational productivity.

While the Lab is unequivocally pro-technology its enthusiasm is tempered by a firm understanding of technology's limits especially with respect to the all too often neglected "Human Factors" of implementation.

We are vendor neutral and help organizations understand the pros and cons of their various options, get the best deal, and future-proof their acquisition.

If you are thinking about deploying telepresence in your organization then please give us a call @ 512-828-7317.

Telepresence Options

We are pleased to welcome TANDBERG as a sponsor of our multi-vendor survey of telepresence and effective visual collaboration, Telepresence Options 2008. To get a free hard copy of the Telepresence Options 2008 Yearbook and/or to subscribe to the Telepresence Options' Newsletter then sign up here: http://www.telepresenceoptions.com/syndication/


TANDBERG is a leading global provider of telepresence, high-definition videoconferencing and mobile video products and services. TANDBERG designs, develops and markets systems and software for video, voice and data. The company provides sales, support and value-added services in more than 90 countries worldwide. TANDBERG's full-range of High Definition telepresence and video systems can be optimized to deliver across-the-table collaboration environments for every member of your organization. TANDBERG is publicly traded on the Oslo Stock Exchange under the ticker TAA.OL. Please visit TANDBERG.

Telepresence People

Hunter Newby, Chief Strategy Officer at telx (and one of my favorite folks in the networking industry) is leaving telx! While I am sworn to secrecy on his new gig I can share with you that it is: super cool!

Phil Keenan has joined Nortel as the Vice President - Multimedia Services
Jonathan Brust has joined Glowpoint as the Vice President - Marketing & Business Development
Shanley Gravel has joined Teliris as PR Guru Extraordinaire

Clive Sawkins
has joined BCS Global as Senior Vice President - Global Sales and Marketing

Feizhen Lu has joined BCS Global as COO

Catherine Playford has joined BCS Global as CFO and VP Corporate Services

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