Telepresence, the high-end form of videoconferencing now coming from several vendors, is the first technology that might let enterprises easily record high-quality versions of all their meetings, essentially with the press of a button.
Though recording and playback features for these systems are still emerging, some issues are already being raised, including storage capacity, liability and playback quality. Those problems may grow as more enterprises seek to cut back on travel and bring dispersed teams together through telepresence.
The technology is designed to make videoconferences more like in-person meetings, with high-definition streaming video, multiple screens and "spatial" audio systems that associate sounds with a speaker's location. Cisco Systems made a splash about two years ago with a product it calls TelePresence Meeting, which carried a price tag of US$598,000 for two six-person room setups with special lighting and furniture.
But numerous other vendors have been stepping up their games as well. Polycom, Hewlett-Packard, Tandberg and smaller players such as LifeSize Communications all have high-definition systems now, and Mitel announced one on Monday. The unified communications company's TeleCollaboration Solution is a large-screen meeting setup with 1080p displays and spatial audio, available with as many as three screens for six participants. Set to ship in January, it will also work with the company's existing desktop videoconferencing client, which is being upgraded and renamed. Pricing has not been set, but the TeleCollaboration Solution will be significantly less expensive than Cisco's TelePresence, said Asif Rehman, director of propositions marketing at Mitel.
Meetings that take place via IP (Internet Protocol) networks are just packets of data, so it seems natural they could be recorded and played back later. Yet, even Cisco doesn't have that capability: It's coming soon, according to Marthin De Beer, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Emerging Technologies Group.
Other vendors are farther along. As Mitel announced the TeleCollaboration Solution this week, it also unveiled recording capability for its desktop videoconferencing system as well as for the new product. LifeSize earlier this year offered an ad-hoc recording feature. Polycom, which has been selling video recording and streaming servers for about two years, already has a second generation of the boxes with greater capacity. Early next year, it plans a new release with the capability to link up to mass storage arrays for additional space, according to Joan Vandermate, vice president of marketing for video solutions.
But one vendor isn't even going near telepresence recording: HP's approach reveals one of the issues surrounding the ability to save any virtual meeting. The company doesn't just sell the Halo line of conferencing units but also is the sole provider of a network linking them together. It won't sell its customers any recording equipment.
"That's not something that we offer as an option, just because of the privacy and security issues," said Darren Podrabsky, global marketing manager for Halo. Supplying recording capability would mean storing the data on HP's network, he said.
"The idea that somebody accessed the content without the customer's permission ... that's just not a position we want to be in," Podrabsky said. "We don't want the liability." If customers want to save recordings of their own telepresence sessions, HP refers them to third parties for products that will let them store the data on their own LANs.
Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala thinks regulatory compliance will sometimes be an issue as companies start recording videoconferences. The systems will have to have ways to opt in or out of recording, he said. And after meetings are stored, IT departments will have to make them easy to search for and retrieve if requested.
In fact, despite HP's reticence about storing customers' recordings, Kerravala believes concerns about capacity and compliance will make managed services an attractive way to get telepresence.
Another issue is recreating the high-quality experience for which an enterprise bought an expensive telepresence system. In one sense, playback is simple: Most vendors allow meeting leaders to send out e-mail with a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) that those who missed the meeting can click on to access.
Sessions can be recorded at lower resolutions suited to PC viewing, or even transcoded into different formats, sometimes with third-party tools. Polycom offers two options for displaying multiple participants on a single screen: switch from person to person by detecting voices, or show all simultaneously in small windows.
"As long as your expectations are in line, it's going to be fine," said Wainhouse Research analyst Ira Weinstein. "But the expectations surrounding telepresence are off the charts."
Most LifeSize customers who want to record telepresence sessions are doing so with one-to-many presentations such as training or executive messages to employees, according to Michael Helmbrecht, director of product management. The company isn't hearing demand for recording the kind of immersive virtual meetings with multiple participants that are the hallmark of telepresence, he said, partly because of confidentiality.
"Boardroom conversations tend not to be something to record," Hembrecht said.
The University of Colorado Denver, along with its medical school and partner hospitals, holds thousands of videoconferences every year, including lectures, medical demonstrations and administrative meetings, and records many of them for playback later. For most, it uses Polycom standard or high-definition systems, said Betty Charles, associate director, educational support services.
Given its needs, the university has run into capacity issues with Polycom's RSS (Recording and Streaming Server) 2000 product because the system can't stream enough sessions out to the network while recording ones currently going on. So the content is sent to a separate video server for distribution. The university doesn't have enough videoconferencing content that it needs to use a SAN (storage-area network) or NAS (network-attached storage) yet, but Charles said she could see that becoming an issue in the future.
Privacy and security are concerns, as well as compliance with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) rules for patient data. The university uses password protection to control access to both live streaming content and stored sessions, Charles said.
Participating in virtual meetings that can later be played back may present some peril for employees, warned Yankee's Kerravala.
"It's easy to tell when someone's not paying attention," he said. "Facial expressions mean a lot."