Pull up a screen

It is time for your midday meeting. Together with five colleagues you take your seat at the half oval-shaped table in your company’s conference room.

Facing you are three 65in plasma screens. On the table in front of you is a telephone. At noon exactly you press a button on the phone and the screens reveal six more of your colleagues seated in a mirror image of your own room, and your half-oval joins theirs to complete the meeting table.

They are life-sized and rendered in realistic, high-definition quality. One coughs quietly but not quietly enough that you cannot hear it. You are in London and they are in Aberdeen. It is time for the meeting to begin.

Cisco Systems hopes this scenario will become common in corporate offices globally thanks to its TelePresence ‘virtual meeting’ system, which was launched last month.

The US-based group, best-known for its internet networking equipment, claims TelePresence breaks new ground in the competitive market for video conferencing technology.

The system combines bespoke audio-visual (AV) hardware with Cisco’s expertise in IP networking to create an experience the company says makes it unnecessary to get on an aircraft or train. Instead, meetings are conducted over an IP network from purpose-built TelePresence rooms in its various offices.

The big question is whether, at $299,000 (£157,000) for the full 12-seater version, TelePresence delivers benefits over and above other video conferencing systems to justify its price tag.

Launching TelePresence Clive Sawkins, Cisco’s director of unified communications for Europe, said the two-year development took as its starting point the dynamics of meetings and included a specially-commissioned study by leading occupational psychologists.

In ‘real’ face-to-face meetings, said Sawkins, what is unsaid is as important as the words spoken. ‘Sixty four per cent of communication is non-verbal,’ said Sawkins. ‘It is not just what you say but your expression as you say it, the way you respond non-verbally to what is said to you, whether you appear comfortable or not with what is being said.’

Cisco argues that as more meetings become ‘virtual’, these non-verbal factors are lost. Hunching around a single, tiny screen straining to hear across a low-quality audio link is a poor substitute for being there. ‘The more this happens, the more ineffectual meetings become. Ambiguity and uncertainty increase and efficiency decreases,’ claimed Sawkins.

TelePresence is designed to create a virtual meeting experience as near to being there as makes no difference.

Cisco decided to custom-design the AV equipment. This was unusual for the company, said Cisco product manager Chris Mclean. ‘In the past we acquired most of our technology but we looked in the market and there was nothing we could buy that would take us to this level.’ The resulting R&D work meant Cisco has 26 patents pending on the various elements of TelePresence.

At the heart of the system are the 65in plasma screens. The big screens are important because they can render people as life-sized, with two chairs per bank of three screens.

It is possible to have more people in each meeting by splitting the screens further to include another two people each. This, however, would shrink the images below life size, which Sawkins said is a no-no for TelePresence. ‘We want to keep it real. People will always appear as life-size in each screen, we will absolutely not compromise that. As soon as you introduce something like picture-in-picture that changes it, because you wouldn’t be smaller than life-size in a real meeting.’

The screen’s crucial feature is their 1080 progressive scanning line high-definition resolution, the same as most advanced HDTVs. The 1080 refers to the number of horizontal lines used to create the image and compares with the 675 lines of standard TV sets. At 1080 the image is high quality and in the context of the TelePresence system allows fine details such as skin tone to be realistically rendered.

It would have been possible, and cheaper, to have used the lower resolution 720 line HD standard used in most high-definition TV sets but Sawkins claimed this would have compromised the project’s objective of ultra-realism. ‘One of the design principles was that this is all about the user experience. If you keep to that principle then 1080p is the first thing that goes into the box.’

The link between the two sides of the virtual meeting is the cluster of Cisco HD cameras mounted above the central screen and sweeping the entire meeting room, not just the table, so that if someone has the urge to pace around they will be visible to their colleagues on the other side of the virtual divide.

Cisco says the cameras designed for TelePresence are the smallest HD broadcast units of their kind.

For the audio element TelePresence uses a wideband multi-channel array of microphones operating on the right, left and centre of the table. The separate channels ensure those viewing remotely will always seem to hear sound originating from the area of the room in which it originated. The various channels will also track sound around the room, so if someone is walking and talking their voice will follow them around the room.

The system is designed to have a latency (the gap between words being spoken and transmission across the system) that is measurable in milliseconds, and therefore imperceptible to the human ear.

The microphones are also fitted with echo cancellation technology designed to eliminate the ‘click-click’ effect on AV equipment caused when a mobile phone receives a signal.

Even the furniture and lighting in the TelePresence meeting room are designed to maximise the realism. Below the screens are conventional displays where presentations or other material, for example a collaborative CAD system, can be viewed.

Cisco says it will have succeeded if those taking part in its virtual meetings forget the technology and think, speak and act as if the people they are facing are in the room with them. Does it achieve this? When Cisco demonstrated TelePresence at the launch the experience was striking. After a few minutes it was easy to forget that the three Cisco executive sitting on the other side of the room were in the their UK headquarters in Middlesex.

The video quality was everything HD is cracked up to be and the audio was flawless. In fact, so realistic was the overall experience that very slight discrepancies were magnified – for example the eye contact seemed marginally off-line to The Engineer’s TelePresence tester.

The situation was also slightly artificial because the subject of the meeting was TelePresence itself, with constant references to its technology reminding participants that they were in a virtual environment. It is possible to imagine a regular meeting being conducted with little sense of the technology being there.

Whether this will persuade businesses to part with $300,000 (or $79,000 for a slimmed-down four-seat version) remains to be seen. Cisco claimed one customer has already signed up and it is talking to many others, including engineering and manufacturing groups for whom cross-border collaboration is a necessity.

The big selling point, said Sawkins, is the reality. Ominously for those who find meetings a pain not a pleasure, he said: ‘We all know how you can hide in a normal video conference. With TelePresence that cannot happen. The nod, the wink, that hand action, you can see everything that’s going on.’

Sawkins’ point is that TelePresence can foster the atmosphere of trust and relaxation that can otherwise only be engendered by the face-to-face meeting.

Cisco quoted one chief executive who, when shown the system, said he would be able to demand meetings with his global regional managers every few weeks instead of a few times a year. The managers will no doubt be raising a glass to Cisco Systems even now.