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New telepresence offerings reach for relevance in the enterprise

Last week at InfoComm, vendors launched new telepresence products -- including a collaborative worktable -- that beg the enterprise to see the technology is more than a luxury.

Telepresence vendors are stretching their product lines to get the once inaccessible and super-expensive technology into the hands of more enterprise users.

Last week vendors flooded InfoComm 08 with product releases aiming to make the technology relevant to all levels of employees at midsized and large companies, rather than just top management at Fortune 5000 companies. For partners, the obvious benefit is a potentially larger market and more sales.

Among the new telepresence products is a system that includes a collaborative worktable that extends across conference rooms and lets users work on shared documents simultaneously. Other new products include a system that lets employees initiate ad hoc immersive video conference sessions on a smaller screen, and high-definition video phones that can dial into those instant conferences to add last-minute participants.

"There is a small market for telepresence as we know it," said Robert Arnold, an analyst at Current Analysis, referring to the type of fully immersive rooms touted by Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Tandberg and Polycom that can cost up to half a million dollars and have been mostly relegated to deep-pocketed multinational companies.

"They are now trying to find more use cases for their systems," Arnold said.

Tandberg, which released a small-screen personal telepresence product in May, made its move last week with two notable offerings -- the T1 Instant Telepresence system and a high-definition video phone that can call into any telepresence system.

The Instant Telepresence is a midlevel play with a 65-inch screen and one high-definition camera that enables users to instantly start a video conference in their personal office or in a smaller conference room. The screen is still large enough to include two people in each participating conference room functioning with each other at eye level, but it doesn't involve high-tech matching furniture in an immovable conference room. The system is the first in Tandberg's line to use 1080p technology for the highest possible resolution.

"The current room systems are overbooked," said Jean Rosauer, a Tandberg spokesperson, of the larger immersive telepresence conference rooms in big companies. This enables more people within those companies to have access to a system, she said.

Charles Madi, executive vice president of sales at Tandberg partner IVCi in Hauppage, N.Y., said his company will look to sell the system as both a standalone for smaller companies and an addition for enterprises that need more conferencing resources on top of their high-end rooms. That's possible since the T1 is built to be interoperable with all of the company's telepresence systems.

"These two products will add millions [to company sales]," Madi said. IVCi is a $70 million company.

Current Analysis's Arnold said many companies are releasing high-definition video products that are dubbed telepresence for marketing purposes, but are actually "watered down." Telepresence by definition is immersive. On the upside, he said these lower-end products can integrate into high-end systems, giving the expensive technology and the new products more validity.

Along those lines, Tandberg released a high-definition video phone with a 10-inch screen last week. The phone enables callers to dial into large immersive meetings, which also enables the high-end rooms to benefit more users at different levels of the company. According to Madi, the phones mean mass implementation and therefore higher sales.

The push by Teliris at InfoComm focused on a collaborative worktable and wall-mount display called the InerACT TouchTable and the InterACT TouchWall. These products let users share and manipulate content across conference rooms regardless of their application source. The collaborative worktable is multi-touch, so users can directly manipulate multiple objects on the screen. The device is even programmed to recognize users' gestures. The company also released a collaborative flip chart called the InterACT Easel.

Teliris president Mack Treece said the collaborative worktable takes content from any environment ranging from computer-aided design (CAD) to video and translates it into Teliris's own software so it can be fully manipulated in this way.

"You can edit documents, video, PDF, PowerPoint," Treece said. "If I'm sitting in New York City, you can take a piece of media and slide it like you're pushing it across a table and the person in London can grab it and then push it to the right to a person in Paris. This is the next evolution of immersive conferencing."

Treece expects the channel and direct sales teams to be able to sell the collaborative worktable both as part of the telepresence system and eventually as its own application. Teliris could find itself competing against Microsoft Surface, another multi-touch work surface application.

Polycom attempted to go down multiple roads at InfoComm, releasing a collaborative worktable, high-resolution video in all products and smaller immersive conference rooms.

Like Tandberg, Polycom said it would extend 1080p high-resolution video capabilities to its telepresence offerings. It also launched the TPX 306M system, a three-screen conference room that includes life-sized video, as well as manipulatable content embedded in the collaborative worktable. The system features personal pop-up displays in the screens. There is also a two-screen version, the TPX 204M, for small and medium-sized conference rooms, which accommodates up to four people. Finally the TPX 102M is a single screen for two-user meetings.

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