Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cool Technology of the Week

Over the past 3 months, I've been evaluating all the technologies needed for flexible work arrangements including video teleconferencing. I've used numerous H320/H323 ISDN/IP Videoteleconferencing applications and appliances. I've used audio/video chat through IM. I've used Apple's iChat with H264 video conferencing.

iChat was really the only usable desktop technology and Polycom was the only usable appliance technology.

Tonight I had the opportunity to 'meet' with Marthin De Beer, Senior Vice President, Emerging Markets Technology Group at Cisco via their Telepresence Technology. It's the Cool Technology of the Week.

Teleprescence creates an easy to use environment for teleconferencing with no latency, no pixelation, and perfect spacial audio quality. What does all that mean?

H320/H323 teleconferencing can take teams of engineers to get working. Every call is an adventure. With telepresence, it's just a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) phone call. Just pick up your IP phone and dial. It's no harder than making a cell phone call. This makes it so easy to use that even a CEO can do teleconferencing without assistance.

In all my other teleconferencing experiences, there is a palpable delay between the time the speaker talks and the recipient hears their voice that makes the conversation feel a bit like a walkie talkie. One person talks, then another person talks. It's not a real time, full duplex, interruptible conversation. Cisco Telepresence uses high performance dedicated hardware codecs, eliminating any perception of latency.

The picture is true 1080p - better than any HDTV broadcast. The codecs provide such efficient compression that only 3 megabits/second is required for this high resolution image. If the available bandwidth is lower than 3 megabits, the image automatically shifts to 720p (HDTV resolution) without any visible degradation of image quality. All images are lifesize, so your eye perceives the conference as truly in person.

The sound system is similiar to a home theater and all the sounds on the transmitting side are perfectly replicated to the receiving side. A person speaking on the right side of the room, sounds like a person speaking on the right side of your room.

What about the price? The Cisco Boxborough location that I used for our conversation was outfitted with a $299,000 unit that creates a room size telepresence experience. Marthin was using a $50,000 corporate unit at Cisco Headquarters in Santa Clara.

Although not formally announced, Cisco is working on a $15,000 home office unit that will function over standard broadband. They are also planning a consumer level version that will cost less than $5000. If I can achieve real time, easy to use, perfectly clear teleconferencing on my home Sharp Aquos HDTV for under $5000, I'd be able to meet with anyone, anytime around the world.

Marthin and I discussed the technology which is H264, but we also discussed the policies and use cases for deploying it. Currently it's designed for meetings which bring people together without having to travel - across the world, country or town. That makes everyone more productive.

We also discussed its potential use for large group presentations. This You Tube Video shows the technology projected on a transparent film, giving a truly holographic experience. If a room were set up with this technology, I could avoid traveling to speeches.

Finally, we discussed its use for flexible work arrangements/remote workers. Marthin's Executive Assistant works in Texas, but the desk outside Marthin's office is outfitted with an always on unit of her virtual presence. This means that Marthin and any Cisco staff member can walk to her desk to speak with her anytime. Marthin will soon have two offices and she'll be in both simultaneously. I can imagine a virtual company, with virtual cubicles, staffed with virtually present employees.

As this technology becomes more affordable and more widely installed, it will empower telecommuting and eliminate a lot of discretionary travel. Sign me up!