Imagine a virtual conferencing solution so advanced that unsuspecting visitors entering the room have been unaware that not all participants were physically present.

That’s what Cisco Systems has designed with its new “Cisco TelePresence” system, technology that aims to remedy the detached feel of talking to a television set that long has plagued traditional video conferences. The technology is likely to have a limited impact in education in the near term, given its initial price point. But as the cost comes down, it could have implications for schools down the road, industry watchers say.

Cisco TelePresence is a tool for orchestrating meetings between far-flung parties that will deliver a vastly more intimate experience, Cisco claims. Announced on Oct. 23, the solution is the San Jose, Calif.-based networking gear maker’s first foray into the fledgling “telepresence” market.

The term is industry jargon for attempting to simulate real-time interactions between people in different locations using high-definition monitors, highly sensitive audio equipment, and integrated networking gear.

The technology aims to be so realistic as to make conference-call participants believe the person talking on the monitor is actually in the same room.

For example, picture a conference room with six chairs, three on each side of a conference table. Envision a clear glass panel running down the center of the table.

Walk into this room while a high-level parlay is under way, and you’d see six executives deep in conversation. But here’s the catch: Only three of them are physically present. The three participants closest to you actually are in the room. The others are in another location, but their life-size, high-definition images are on the glass partition in the conference room.

The illusion reportedly is heightened because both locations use matching furnishings. Other elements that enhance the effect are that participants appear to make direct eye contact with one another, the streaming video is smooth and flawless, and the audio is perfectly matched to lip movement.

Several companies, including Hewlett-Packard Co., already offer telepresence products. The market is projected to grow to $300 million by 2008, according to technology research firm Gartner Inc.

Cisco, which makes the routers and switches used to link networks, is banking that large corporate clients will flock to the technology and propel it into a billion-dollar business.

One of Cisco’s newest products is a high-end room that can accommodate up to 12 people around the virtual table and comes with three 65-inch plasma displays, three high-definition cameras, and the table and lighting. Price: $299,000.

The other is a single-screen version that costs $79,000 and can accommodate up to four people.

Both products are designed to run across a company’s existing network, said Marthin De Beer, vice president of Cisco’s Emerging Markets Technology Group.

But to take advantage of the technology, customers must have robust bandwidth; the high-end room uses about 10 megabits of bandwidth per second.

De Beer said the technology marks a dramatic improvement in reliability, ease of use, and overall realism over traditional video conferencing products and solves a lingering business dilemma.

“This has been an elusive dream for many years,” he said. “With all the technologies of the past, people were never comfortable to use it for real business, to close that deal or sign that contract.”

Whether the illusion of greater intimacy is important enough for schools to justify the higher price tag remains to be seen.

“Telepresence will have a very limited role in education in the near future, given the [initial] price point,” said Vijay Sonty, chief information officer for Florida’s Broward County Public Schools.

Sonty said Broward County is now piloting a video conferencing system that lowers the cost to about $200 per end point and reportedly works with all other major systems. He said the high-definition capabilities of the district’s current system are “more than sufficient for education,” including teaching, learning, and research.

David Willis, chief of research for Gartner, said the steep price and network requirements make Cisco’s products irrelevant for all but the largest of customers. But he was impressed with the technology.

“It’s an amazing illusion,” he said. “It really pulls off the experience of a real meeting. And I hate video conferencing … But this is like David Copperfield. This is like magic.”

Cisco said the systems are already available and should begin shipping to customers in about four weeks.


Cisco TelePresence