Nearly 80 years after the first American television station went on the air–W3XK broadcasting from Virginia in 1928 — video once again appears to be “the next big thing.” Witness, please, the three major developments on that front that occurred last month alone: the debut of eSN TechWatch (see Front Page), the purchase of YouTube by Google for a reported $1.65 billion, and the unveiling of a “telepresence” system by Cisco Systems.

Important as the moves by eSchool Newsand Google surely are, the development with the greatest likelihood of long-term impact might be Cisco’s. At press time, Cisco was playing it close to the vest on telepresence, as is its customary policy with products under development.

But if Cisco’s telepresence was being held in confidence until Oct. 23, the official launch date, it was about as secret as a closed-door hearing in the House of Representatives  in other words, not too secret.

In fact, John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco, lifted the veil a little himself earlier this year. He promised then that his company would introduce software that would enable enterprises to manage and present video to staff, partners, the public, and members of the board.

Cisco’s telepresence system, Chambers said, will use life-size, high-definition video and directional sound that can make voices seem to emanate from visual representations of specific individuals who actually are in a remote location.

Based on scraps and snippets from the internet and usually reliable sources, here’s what I could gather about Cisco’s telepresence system before the official announcement. Imagine 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–in Chicago, say. The others are in San Jose, Calif., but their life-size, high-definition images are on the glass partition in the Chicago conference room.

According to industry insider William MacDonald, a founder of Codian Ltd., a leading manufacturer of high-performance video conferencing infrastructure, unsuspecting visitors entering a room during a telepresence conference have at first been unaware that all the participants were not physically present:

“A person coming late to the conference and standing near the back of the room didn’t realize a telepresence conference was going on until someone from the remote location said, ‘Hey, Jim, could you move into camera range so we can see you.'”

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.

According to Donald Proctor, senior vice president of Cisco’s Voice Technology Group, as quoted in CIO magazine, his company’s “telepresence system is just one component of its overall Unified Communications architecture, which also includes IP (internet protocol) telephony, text messaging, application collaboration, and desktop videoconferencing …

“Enterprises will be able to plug [telepresence] into that infrastructure,” he said, adding that telepresence initially is designed not for desktop use but for corporate boardrooms or dedicated videoconference rooms.

Whether schools and universities would be willing to pay for a full-fledged telepresence capability is unclear. But, in time, the potential for education could be substantial. Leading universities are currently making course content available over the internet and participating in high-definition clinical demonstrations via Internet2 for their medical schools. Already vanguard K-12 districts such as Clark County in Las Vegas make extensive use of video conferencing for management communications, community relations, and staff development. (In a district such as Clark County, with a geographic area the size of New Jersey, the ability to meet virtually but with real-life fidelity could represent genuine economies in terms of travel costs.)

As Cisco chief Chambers puts it: “Video communications is the most effective way to communicate there is.”

What remains to be seen–literally–is how what Cisco is announcing will compare in price and quality with the effective visual collaboration systems already on offer from companies such as Codian, LifeSize Communications, HP (with its Halo Collaboration Studio), Digital Video Enterprises, Teliris, and Destiny Conferencing– to name a few. As we video moguls like to say: Stay tuned.