TelePresence Takes You Anywhere in Seconds

Cisco Systems' new virtual meeting solution delivers disappearing technology and global meetings that are so real, you feel you are in the same room.


Meetings, meetings, meetings, who needs more meetings? Combined with travel time, any larger regional entity like state police, larger cities, FEMA and others lose thousands of personnel hours annually to drive time and meeting preparation.

If you've tried teleconferencing, Microsoft NetMeeting, instant messaging, and conference calls, then you'll understand that all of the solutions share a common problem: you have to think about the technology. Going all the way back to wax tablets and hot styli, we always had to use something to communicate, and that something distracted from the message. The technology only delivered one mode: text, or voice, or voice with text, or "herky-jerky video" combined with out of sync audio. You weren't there. You weren't one with the person you were meeting with, and errors abound in that world. You read into conversations, assume things other than those written in a blog or chat room, and can't see the body language in a grainy video meeting. My favorite miscommunications story involved a 36-year-old secretary whose handsome bachelor turned out to be a barely post-pubescent 13-year-old boy. Talk about misunderstanding!

I recently visited a Cisco Systems Customer Briefing Center and saw the new TelePresence solution first hand. With a phone call, the instructor dialed Tokyo, Sydney, Washington D.C., Hamburg, and the list went on. In each case three 60-inch screens lit up and connected to a 12-person conference room.

The meeting rooms at each end of the transaction matched. The oval meeting table disappears into the screens and picks up in the screen view of the destination side of the meeting. Three cameras installed in a precision fashion make the destination site feel like the conference room is only divided by a window. The sound quality and three microphones deliver a three-channel stereo experience. The person you are meeting with can walk across the room and the sound travels with them in real time. You get lost in it.

It becomes impossible to remain aware of the technology. The meeting flows like it would in person. Conference materials can be delivered real time on screens both locally and at the destination site.

I first saw the system featured on the TV show 24 (a clip is available at Cisco System's web site). For once, the hype is as good as the real product. It's irresistible to contemplate being able to participate in a real time, multi-jurisdictional interview of a serial burglar, isn't it? How about being able to discuss with the state crime lab several hundred miles away, in real time, findings from a crime scene?

But there is a problem. The technology is currently very inaccessible because of price and bandwidth issues. At $100,000 for a single screen version and $400,000 per site for a three-screen meeting room, a two-location setup starts to chase the $1,000,000 total. Recurring bandwidth costs can also be cost-prohibitive, as well requiring heavy monthly toll charges and dedicated high bandwidth network connections. The value proposition is certainly there for global or national companies that need to accelerate internal processes while saving thousands on travel.

The value is also there for national security or disaster response, but currently isn't there for the typical small town PD With any luck, states will build out a few of these and allow local law enforcement to use them to consult with state and national experts.

When will we get it on the local level? Here's what I think. As a kid, I remember the first Hamilton digital wristwatch. It sold for $14,000. Not many years later, you could get a better one for free in a box of cereal. Personal computers went the same falling price route, as did memory sticks and hard drive storage price per megabyte, gigabyte, and today, terabyte.

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