Immersive Telepresence: New systems for a declining market

[This informed view of the market for high-end telepresence systems is from NoJitter, where the story includes the mentioned video and two more images. –Matthew ]

Cisco IX 5000 at Cisco Collaboration Summit 2014

[Image: Rowan Trollope’s IX 5000 demo at Cisco Collaboration Summit 2014]

Immersive Telepresence: New Systems for a Declining Market

Super big video conferencing systems may only serve a niche in the enterprise, but that hasn’t stopped ongoing development from Cisco, Polycom, and Huawei.

Brian Riggs | March 02, 2015

When it comes to video conferencing these days, virtual meeting rooms, mobile and desktop clients, cost-effective cloud services, and similarly democratizing solutions are in. Super big systems that deliver a super quality experience at super crazy prices are out. Or are they?

If you go by the numbers, things look pretty gloomy for immersive telepresence solutions, those high-end systems that use HD video, life-size images, just-so lighting, and custom furniture to create the illusion that all participants are in the same conference room. While Ovum doesn’t do forecasts of communications systems, some of my friends at rival analyst firms do. IDC analyst Rich Costello, for instance, said in December 2014 that multicodec telepresence equipment revenue was down nearly 16% year over year. Earlier in 2014 the numbers were even less kind, with the estimated year-over-year decline ranging from just over 26% to nearly 35% depending at which quarter you look.

Moreover, the market for immersive telepresence systems is only about one-tenth the size of that for regular room-based systems — $34 million compared with $347 million, again according to IDC. But that’s revenue for just one quarter. There’s about $130 million to be made annually from immersive systems, and even if the figure is dwindling that’s still a big chunk of change. This is at least in part why we’re seeing not just continued development on and incremental upgrades to immersive telepresence systems but vendors releasing entirely new generations of their systems.

Cisco IX 5000

For Cisco this takes the form of the IX 5000, an entirely new three-screen immersive telepresence endpoint that replaces the TX 9000 in the company’s portfolio. Conversations about immersive systems are always a tad surreal to me, touching on points that never come up with other business communications technology. Rowan Trollope, the Collaboration Technology Group SVP speaking at Cisco’s fall 2014 Collaboration Summit, drew attention to the IX 5000’s recyclable casing that weighs half as much as the TX 9000 and is compact enough to fit in a freight elevator. (Apparently cranes were a pain point for Cisco customers getting oversized, one-ton immersive telepresence units into their offices.) Room remediation is now optional with the IX 5000, so customers can choose whether or not they want to tweak lighting, decor, and acoustics when they plunk one of these things into an office.

Other improvements have more in common with more run-of-the-mill communications systems. It requires less bandwidth (10.8 Mbps for 1080p60 as opposed to 19 Mbps for the TX 9000) and consumes less power (0.9 kW vs 2.7 kW), as well as weighs less (1,235 lb vs 2,000+ lb), throws off less heat (3,000 BTUs vs 9,500 BTUs), and draws power from a single electrical outlet.

The system also features cameras that produce images at 4K ultra-high resolution and that Cisco puts to interesting use. Using the 4K cameras, the IX 5000 creates an image that’s four times larger than what’s actually needed to fill the three screens of an immersive telepresence system. This is cropped down to show participants seated behind their tables. But when someone stands up, the crop is removed, effectively zooming the image out to show both standing and sitting participants.

This solves the problem of having participants appear sawed in half whenever they stand up. But it can be argued that the act of zooming in and out disrupts the illusion of face-to-face meetings, since the size of conference participants gets smaller and larger as people stand and sit. In fact, in Trollope’s Collaboration Summit demo, the table top of all remote participants, as well as their hands and half their arms, were entirely cut off from the bottom of the display when one person stood up.

You can see what I’m talking about at the 8-minute, 30-second mark in the video [in the article at NoJitter].

New features — including zoom via 4K mentioned above, as well as lower bandwidth via H.265, optional remediation — are specific to the IX 5000 series. The codecs of Cisco’s existing telepresence systems don’t have the processing power required to create the three zoomed out images at 1080p resolution, so they can’t be upgraded or retrofitted to support the feature. This means Cisco is counting on customers not so much to upgrade their existing immersive systems, but to invest in entirely new ones.

The six-seat IX 5000 studio lists for $299,000, while the 18-seater is $339,000. This is exactly the same price as TX 9000 systems. So Cisco is counting on customers to pay a hefty price for the new functionality. Or rather, Cisco’s pitch is that the total cost of ownership of its new immersive systems is dramatically lower because customers will pay less for room remediation, installation, power, cooling, and bandwidth.

Polycom RealPresence Immersive Studio

Polycom also is seeing enough interest in high-end immersive telepresence to have released a brand- new immersive system last year. “Clearly this is a bit of a niche,” admits senior product marketing manager Brian Phillips. “But for those businesses that have invested in them these systems are very important and they use them all the time.”

As with the Cisco solution, RealPresence Immersive Studio replaces the one that was previously available — in this case, the RPX 4000. Also like Cisco, Polycom’s latest immersive system includes many new bells and whistles that are unique to it and cannot be added to earlier RPX 400 endpoints. These include:

  • Three-channel audio: Immersive Studio triangulates each speaker’s location and activates one or more of the three to six ceiling microphones closest to them. This results in spatial audio so precise that participants on the far end of the call can hear separate conversations when people break into small groups and talk among themselves. Polycom says this is currently unique among video conferencing systems.
  • Multiple content display options: Immersive Studio gives up the small content displays that had been integrated into the conference table in the previous system for a 55-inch content display screen above the center screen. The conference room manager also can move content to one of the three 84-in displays, to a separate 70-in touchscreen interactive whiteboard, or to participants’ tablets and laptops.
  • HD content display: Immersive Studio displays content at 1080p60 resolution. This results in exceedingly crisp content when it’s shown on screens that can support it

As with the RPX endpoints they replace, RealPresence Immersive Studio systems do not cut off people in the middle when they stand up. But unlike the new Cisco endpoints they don’t avoid this with new whizbang 4K cameras (which the Polycom systems do not support). Rather, the displayed image simply leaves enough room above seated participants not to cut them off when they stand up. The downside of this, I suppose, is wasting a lot of screen real estate, since when all people are seated the top third of the screen is essentially dead space.

Polycom, unlike Cisco, has lowered list prices with the introduction of its new immersive systems. The nine-seat Immersive Studio model lists for $426,000, while the 21-seater costs $476,000. This compares with the eight-seat RPX 400 listing for $600,000, and the 28-seater costing $666,000. Polycom’s second line of immersive telepresence systems, the OTX series, doesn’t have all the new RealPresence Immersive Studio features but presents customers with lower prices, coming in at just under $300,000 list.

Huawei TP 3106-70

Huawei has three immersive telepresence systems in its portfolio — small, medium, and large. The large one — Max Presence — just came out a few months ago. It’s for very large conferences with dozens of people per room. I’m counting 69 chairs in at least one of the marketing photos, so I’m not sure this is really in the same category of “It’s like you’re just on the other side of the table!” immersive systems I’ve been talking about here. But I’ve been looking for evidence that R&D for high-end immersive solution remains active, and this provides just that.

Additionally, Huawei has just revamped the system at the lower end of its immersive telepresence lineup. The TP 3106-70 came out early last year, as its predecessor and a number of other immersive systems went end of life. Comparing spec sheets, the TP 3106-70 has 70-in displays (hence the name, as the TP 3106 had 55-in displays), consumes less bandwidth (9 Mbps for 1080p60 vs 12 Mbps), consumes less power (1.58 kW vs 2.9 kW), and weighs less (1,985 lbs vs 2,207 lbs). The system also supports IPv6, H.264 High Profile and Scalable Video Coding, localization in Japanese and Russian, the addition of a panoramic camera, and some kind of “local conference capability with up to 10 people” — all of which were lacking in the system that it replaces.

Niche market

Frankly, I’ve never understood the “immersive telepresence is dead because desktop video is so cheap” argument. Desktop and immersive video solutions are targeted at two different types of customers, two different use cases, and two different conference experiences. One doesn’t replace the other.

I think we’ll still see big financial firms investing in them, as well as universities with loads of network bandwidth and enterprises wanting to wow executives and board members with the completely immersive experience. And it’s very likely that businesses capable of shelling out $300,000 a pop a few years ago will come up with the money needed to replace these systems as their feature sets become less cutting edge.

An interesting aside, one of the collaboration executives at the Cisco conference — I can’t remember who, but maybe Lowell Johnson — said a lot of companies lease its immersive systems, and many of those companies’ leases are about to end. The implication is that the sale of a new system isn’t always Cisco’s goal when it comes to the IX 5000. Rather, Cisco will provide existing customers new capabilities by swapping out TX 9000 systems for IX 5000s under an existing or new lease agreement. This might not result in the sale of a bunch of $300,000 systems, but rather in a bunch of $7,300-per month leases.

That said, immersive telepresence remains a market niche… and it will become even more niche. I’ve heard of no major changes to Avaya’s Scopia XT Telepresence Platform of late. As far as I can tell AVI-SPL’s Chameleon solution is long gone. And new entrants, like Array Telepresence, will present enterprises with alternative, lower-cost options while still retaining the immersive experience.

Yet Polycom, Cisco, and Huawei have established a presence in this admittedly small segment of the video conferencing market. They have existing customers they need to keep happy, and they have enough of a presence to translate continued R&D efforts into revenue. So don’t expect the market for immersive telepresence solutions to skyrocket… but neither should you expect to see it wither away and die any time soon.

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