ITS A FAMILIAR CONCEPT to anyone whos seen a sci-fi movie: talking to a holographic projection of someone on the other side of the galaxy, making it seem almost as if the person were in the room with you.
That vision may be getting closer to reality as high-definition video conferencing begins to roll out. New products from LifeSize Communications, Nortel Networks, Prescient Worldwide and TANDBERG are now on the market and available through those companies VARs and channel partners, while market leader Polycom Inc. has announced intentions to launch high-def soon. On the service provider front, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Business both offer high-definition products. HD offers are, for now, room-based systems, although some vendors such as TANDBERG have desktop systems planned.
Traditionally, video conferencing has served a niche market, mostly for applications in telemedicine, big corporations, education and a few others. With HDs capabilities, not only does the addressable market widen, but core targets may be more likely to consider video conferencing. Thats because high-def offers higher resolution, better granularity and broadcast-like quality vis-à-vis traditional video conferencing.
It used to be that if the camera panned back to see everyone in a room, you would see a dramatic loss of quality, explains Bob Romano, vice president of enterprise marketing for RADVISIONs networking business unit, an OEM. And, room systems also used to be the size of a refrigerator and cost $150,000. Now were talking a $10,000 average cost and a much, much better experience.
LifeSize Communications HD system is one of the first on the market.
Gone are the days of grainy, blurry video conferencing; with HD, a 16:9 aspect ratio allows users to see everyone in the room, and the resolution is high enough at 1,280×720 pixels to detect an eye roll, a grimace, or an uncomfortable look of nervousness. Its really much more like being in the same room with someone than video conferencing has ever been able to offer before, says Munira Fareed, vice president of marketing for LifeSize Communications.
Full duplex audio that allows people to talk at the same time without muddying the sound is a new aspect for video conferencing, says Jeff Lord, vice president of strategic development at Prescient Worldwide, which uses patented, proprietary technology to deliver standard and HD video conferencing regardless of network latencies. Also, sustained broadcast quality at 30 frames per second for two-way video has not been a common experience in video conferencing.
Prescients product can provide both, he said, even at standard definition, which makes for fewer objections for the companys agent partners, he notes.
Telepresence is a new trend for the executive set that takes HD capabilities even further. Custom rooms with very-high-quality, lifesize display screens give users a virtual reality experience. To users, it looks as if their video counterparts are sitting at the table with them. A first-mover, Hewlett-Packard Co. offers the Halo telepresence product, used by Pepsico and Dreamworks SKG. And Cisco Systems Inc. announced earlier this year its telepresence intentions, which will include directional sound technology that makes voices seem to come from wherever the high-def speaker is sitting in the room. It also will include special lighting to complete the virtual reality experience. Its slated for release sometime next year.
Full-emersion rooms are the trends to watch moving forward, says Harold ONeill, offer and product manager for video conferencing services at AT&T, which supports high-def in the backbone of its multipoint video conferencing product. It will be determined by how many executives will see the need and make the investment to install one of those types of rooms given their substantial investment.
Despite the coolness factor, HD systems arent for everyone. The primary customers for this level of equipment are those who either want to have the experience of having others in the room with them during a video conference, or for those that want a near-broadcast television quality video conference experience, explains AT&Ts ONeill. Markets where it makes the most sense still include traditional video conferencing targets like telemedicine, education and Fortune 100 executive boardrooms. Case-Western University uses HD conferencing to show students live surgeries as part of its medical curriculum, for instance. In the rural medicine arena, doctors sitting remotely are better able to make diagnoses or perform surgery consultations, and they also can receive medical imaging files. Similarly, distance learning becomes more compelling by fostering an in-person feel for lectures. Its the next best thing to being there, so to speak.
As noted, HD also opens up some new targets for video conferencing. Were seeing the entertainment world embracing this, says LifeSizes Fareed. One production studio in New York uses it to audition actors in New York for directors sitting in L.A. It speeds up their business; there is no sending tapes back and forth. Its interactive so a director can ask an actor to smile or cry or what have you, and its broadcast quality so you get an idea of what actors will look like on the screen.
Supply-chain-based companies are another new target. HD provides a level of granularity for inspecting goods that precludes in-person visits. For instance, a fashion house in Milan can examine and order fabric from China using HD.
And, it can be used as a content-delivery mechanism. As transport platforms move to HD, it opens up applications in nontraditional areas, says Hugh McCullen, director of multimedia services at Nortel Networks. You can plug in cameras from surveillance systems, television studios pretty much any source and distribute to other parties. A system like this could be used for an Internet gaming café, for instance.
Video also can have a greater shelf life, McCullen adds. If the system is used to show a CEO address to satellite offices, it later can be output to video PDAs, iPods, Webcasts its all part of HD systems ability to capture content, he says.
The Low-Down on High-Def
Correct monitor selection also will require matching the size of the room and the average distance participants will sit from the monitor.
The following table matches screen sizes and typical viewing distances.
Source: Polycom Inc.
The continuing penetration of HD in the home and the prevalence of broadband are contributing to the demand for the technology in the conferencing market, players say. This is a very nascent market, but HD will go mainstream as it begins to pervade peoples homes, says Pradeep Bardia, business manager for DSP video solutions at Texas Instruments, a chipmaker for video conferencing systems, including LifeSizes HD system. People are beginning to pay extra for HD sports programming and so on. So when you walk into a video conference, you will increasingly expect that kind of quality because thats what youre used to at home. If the video is choppy, its a compromise you may not want to make. HD will catch on more as those at-home viewing habits carry over into the business domain, and as more businesses continue to put in metro Ethernet and other high-bandwidth networks to support these kinds of applications.
The rising hassle and cost of air travel is a more traditional conferencing driver. The question isnt about saving money necessarily, says Fareed. Travel is downright painful these days. But meanwhile, globalization continues, and more and more customers and partners come from abroad. Serious businesspeople want to understand who theyre doing business with, to see whos leading the charge, who isnt signed on. Because of the lifelike quality high-definition offers, it becomes an invaluable tool to provide that in-person experience if you dont want to travel halfway across the world every month.
While HD is gaining ground, there are lingering gating factors. For one, video is complex and requires plenty of bandwidth and special equipment (see sidebar at right). For another, interoperability is a concern. Video conferencing has been a standalone paradigm where systems dont talk to each other, says Romano. Its not simple to connect, because there is no common dial pattern as with the telephone. You have to register with a server or gateway, which is fine for communications within the enterprise, but very difficult when connecting with people outside your network.
All of that may play into a VARs strengths, however. Video is an area where VARs can add a lot of value, says Jay Saur, conferencing product manager at Verizon Business, which resells video conferencing products from Polycom and Cisco. Video is complicated and requires user education. VARs can provide the CPE, the network, maintenance and can perform setup and registration.
As time goes on and these issues are resolved, HD video conferencing, an emerging market right now, may become very large indeed, especially once HD gets to the desktop. Video conferencing will simply be more compelling to a wider audience once it moves to the desktop, says Saur. Once you have presence management and easy-touse tools on your PC to launch a video conference on the fly, and you dont have to reserve and walk to a special room to do it, that will make it more ubiquitous.
It also may be wrapped up in a larger play, presenting even more opportunity for the channel. VAR-friendly Cisco says it will make its telepresence system part of its unified communications architecture, which also includes IP telephony, text messaging, application collaboration and desktop video conferencing.
Video conferencing as a standalone product will eventually go away, says Romano. It will be a world of unified communications, where Web, voice, data and video applications all come together via software or an IP PBX, and video conferencing will then be part of a much larger industry.
Nortels McCullen says enterprise IPTV also will dovetail with HD video conferencing: Youll have multichannel streams of information related to training and job information, tied into the two-way interactivity and indexing ability of video conferencing.
For agents and VARs, being able to talk the HD talk opens up bigger doors now and later. This takes them up-market now, talking to the Fortune 500, says Jason Whiting, Prescients director of marketing. HD uptake is slow but steady, and eventually everybody will want it. So channel partners need to be positioned for when that point comes down the road. Its absolutely an opportunity.
|AT&T Inc. www.att.com
Cisco Systems Inc. www.cisco.com
Hewlett-Packard Co. www.hp.com
LifeSize Communications www.lifesize.com
Nortel Networks Ltd. www.nortel.com
Polycom Inc. www.polycom.com
Prescient Worldwide www.prescientworldwide.com
Texas Instruments www.ti.com
Verizon Business www.verizonbusiness.com
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