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Telepresence room design: Do you really need to buy a vendor's chairs?

UC pros want more flexible telepresence deployment options, challenging rigid telepresence room design guidelines that require custom furniture and prescribed layouts.

There's no arguing that immersive telepresence can be a powerful experience when a remote participant appears to be actually sitting across the table from you. But that experience doesn't come cheap, especially when leading vendors dictate that it requires specific furniture and rigid telepresence room design.

Enterprise unified communications (UC) managers, however, are looking for more flexible telepresence deployment options as they look to broaden their telepresence and mobility deployments. They are challenging the notion that telepresence room design requires a vendor's proprietary floor plan and custom tables and chairs to guarantee quality of experience.

"Is it absolutely necessary to have a standard design template nailed up in stone in order to have a telepresence experience? No, absolutely not. Is it necessary to actually think carefully about where you sit and where the audio is? Yes, that's absolutely true," said Henry Dewing, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "[Because] if nobody gets the urge to shake hands or pass business cards through the screen, it's not immersive." 

There's this idea that if you don't even have something like [a traditional telepresence suite], it's like, 'Don't even try video conferencing.

Dr. Andrew Barbash
Director of Virtual Care Services, Holy Cross Hospital

Although best known for its desktop platforms, video conferencing software vendor Vidyo recently announced the release of its first telepresence product: VidyoPanorama. Whereas competing higher-end products from Cisco Systems and Polycom rotate displays between two or three screens to show active speakers—to more closely emulate an in-person meeting—Vidyo rejects that approach entirely. 

Panorama simultaneously displays every participant on a separate screen—creating what's informally known as the "Brady Bunch" or "Hollywood Squares" effect, in reference to the popular TV shows. Also unlike conventional systems that require specific room layouts and custom furniture, Panorama enables UC pros to customize their own layouts using commercial high-definition (HD) TVs and existing conference room desks and chairs.

Special furniture, layout takes guesswork (and flexibility) out of telepresence room design

Conventional telepresence room design—three or four large plasma screens, prescribed layouts, private network connection—doesn't meet the diverse needs of a hospital, according to Dr. Andrew Barbash, director of virtual care services and a practicing neurologist at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md.

That classic setup may suit hospital executives for their board meetings, but clinicians have different needs, said Barbash, who also helps guide the hospital's overall collaboration strategy. Doctors and nurses are inherently mobile, yet their job functions require the high-quality, virtually-there experience of telepresence, he said.

"There's this idea that if you don't even have something like [a traditional telepresence suite], it's like, 'Don't even try video conferencing,'" said Barbash, who blogs about UC in healthcare and meets with patients in his virtual office using Vidyo's personal telepresence products. "If that's the case, you wouldn't want to have somebody drop in [to a telepresence session] to participate from home.... Do they have a special chair? Do they have a purple camera? Do they have multiple speakers on their ceiling?"

Barbash has not used VidyoPanorama, but he likes the flexibility of deployment that the product promises to offer. In a hospital setting, he suggested it could be used at a nurse's station to conduct virtual rounds or for an attending physician to remotely oversee interns and residents' meetings with patients.

Origins of rigid telepresence room design

Vendors required customers to buy custom furniture and follow rigid telepresence room design guidelines partly because they were trying to build ergonomic setups for executives, who were likely to use the suites for meetings all day, Dewing said. But the bigger issue was preserving the immersive experience, especially as most UC pros aren't videographers or lighting specialists, he said.

"I think as this market started, you needed something like that because so many people in the video world would just slap a camera at the end of the table," Dewing said. "There's this baggage around video conferencing that people hadn't thought about, and unless you're a video expert, there are a lot of things with lighting and audio that you wouldn't get right the first time."

When Cisco launched its first telepresence system, it had "very stringent requirements" to take this guesswork out of the equation for customers, according to David Hsieh, vice president of telepresence marketing at Cisco. Since then, it has launched a wider range of endpoints under its TelePresence brand to enable more flexibility, including personal telepresence systems and the desktop software TelePresence Movi.

Polycom also expanded its telepresence portfolio in April to accommodate alternative deployments with the release of the HDX 4000 series of "executive desktop" endpoints and the m100 telepresence software application for PCs. In late 2009, Polycom released its ATX 300 series of  telepresence products, which provide an immersive across-the-table experience like its higher-end models, but the ATX comes with no prescribed furniture or layout.

"The traditional video conferencing business had never reached 'breakaway' growth because the quality of experience was not very good, inconsistent and hard to use," Hsieh said. "We wanted to ensure [when we first released TelePresence] that every customer could achieve the fully immersive experience."

More speakers in 'Brady Bunch' telepresence room design has pros, cons

VidyoPanorama—in beta trials this summer and generally available at the end of the year—will initially accommodate deployments with four, six or nine screens, ranging from $40,000-$60,000, depending on the number of screens and resolution. By early 2012, Vidyo plans to support up to 20 screens on its system.

Although not all enterprises will need 20-screen telepresence rooms, other vendors' maximum of three or four is not enough, according to Young-Sae Song, vice president of product marketing at Vidyo. Participants lose sight of each other when there are more people than there are screens, he said.

Cisco and Polycom have responded to that problem by having their systems automatically display active speakers in a session. Other people only appear when they speak up. Cisco also recently added an optional "filmstrip" feature that shows smaller images of inactive speakers.

"You have this 'musical screen' scenario because you're limited by the number of screens," Song said. "We [spoke to] one of the analysts who does a quarterly briefing with [Cisco CEO] John Chambers, and when he sits in these telepresence meetings, he actually coughs every five or 10 minutes so that he'll pop up on the screen [in order for] Chambers to see him."

But Vidyo's multiscreen "Brady Bunch" approach isn't perfect either, according to Forrester's Dewing. Aside from the logistical problems around having to "wallpaper" a conference room with monitors to grow a deployment, keeping an eye on all those displays during a call can distract from the actual meeting, he said.

"People are life-sized and you can see everyone in the meeting, so from that point of view, I applaud them. It is a telepresence experience," Dewing said. "But as somebody talks, you've actually got to scan all the pictures to see where [the voice] is coming from ... and you have to look for them in ways that are odd for people—you're looking up and down, and left and right."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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