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The videoconference comes of age - Technology & Media - International Herald Tribune


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LONDON — When Ken Crangle, a Hewlett-Packard executive in Corvallis, Oregon, wants to meet with colleagues in farflung corners of the world, he avoids the airport and instead walks down the hall to a room equipped with $425,000 worth of communications gear.

He clicks a computer mouse and his colleagues appear life size on high-definition video screens. They speak as if they are with him in the room, without the delay or jerkiness typically associated with such links. If there are several people on the other end, the sound system automatically adjusts to help direct participants' gaze from one speaker to the next.

"What you experience very quickly changes your impressions of videoconferencing," Crangle said in an interview by telephone.

Crangle is general manager of HP's Halo division, one of several businesses producing a new generation of videoconferencing equipment that, advocates say, is almost as good as being there. HP introduced Halo late last year, after developing it with DreamWorks Animation SKG, the film studio, which wanted to be able to link teams of animators in two California sites.

Videoconferencing started to change in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when niche providers like Teliris, a privately held firm based in London and New York, developed so-called telepresence systems for clients that depended heavily on trans-Atlantic communication, in fields like banking and pharmaceuticals. But now big players in the technology sector are moving into the business.


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On Monday, Cisco Systems was to introduce several telepresence products, adding a new line of business for the company, which has mostly focused on producing routers and switches that manage traffic on the Internet and corporate data networks.

Like HP and Teliris, Cisco says telepresence could turn into a multibillion-dollar market as companies cut back on business travel amid growing concerns about security threats, inconvenience, lost productivity and environmental damage associated with flying. "It certainly is a resource people are going to be using more and more," said Claire Schooley, senior industry analyst at Forrester Research in San Francisco.

This is not the first time that videoconferencing has been talked up as a potential alternative to travel. After the Sept. 11 attacks, some analysts predicted a sharp drop in business flights, predicting that companies would keep their employees close to home and conduct more meetings via the video screen. After a short dropoff, though, travel returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels.

Part of the problem has been that traditional videoconferencing systems sometimes do not work very well, and can be difficult to operate. As with badly dubbed movies, speakers' movements often do not correspond to the audio, because of delays in transmission.

"If you ask most executives about videoconferencing, they say, 'Don't like it, don't use it. The meeting's always late because the guy shows up with a lot of wires and screwdrivers,'" said Chris Dedicoat, president of European markets at Cisco.

The new, high-end offerings are easier to operate, providers say, and create a more natural feel. Cisco's new, $300,000 system, for instance, features three 60-inch video screens, lined up so that meeting participants on the other end of the line appear to be sitting across a conference table that blends seamlessly into the video image. Meanwhile, the increased availability of high-bandwidth data networks means images and sound can be sent over long distances with no "latency," or delay.

Marc Trachtenberg, chief executive of Teliris, said telepresence systems worked because they could transmit the "cultural norms" of meetings and conversations - the body language, facial tics and other subtle signals that often say much more than mere spoken words.

Trachtenberg said Teliris had provided more than 70 telepresence rooms for customers. They are priced at up to $250,000 each.


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HP, meanwhile, said it had sold 63 Halo setups to customers like Novartis, AIG, PepsiCo and Canon.

In an effort to bring telepresence to a broader audience, Cisco plans to provide a second, lower-priced system, at $80,000 per station.

Tandberg, a Norway-based company that makes a range of videoconferencing equipment, expects much of the growth in the market, which has been increasing by 20 percent to 25 percent per year, to be in the lower end, said Paul Gullett, the company's managing director in Britain.

"Telepresence is a great thing in that it raises executive awareness, and then the benefits flow down through the organization," he said.

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