Telepresence in Europe takes off

As the leaders of European companies think beyond the all too short Christmas break and contemplate 2012, they face tough decisions regarding the communications technology investments required to support their businesses in the fragile economic environment


Frost & Sullivan’s discussions with key decision-makers over the last few years suggest their strategies will follow a familiar 20:30:30 pattern.  Around 20 percent demonstrate a strong vision of the costs savings and productivity gains that advanced communication and collaboration solutions can deliver; approximately 30 percent will ‘swim around in circles’ – making some investments, but reducing spend elsewhere; the remainder are cutting back on new expenditure, sceptical of the benefits such products and services can deliver.

One area of communications and collaborative technology that strongly divides opinions is visual collaboration, which has experienced a global surge in awareness and investment following the recession.

Visual collaboration includes videoconferencing, videotelephony and telepresence. In Europe, telepresence products from vendors like Cisco, Polycom, LifeSize, Radvision, Vidyo and Sony are primarily being delivered to customer from the major service providers, such as Orange Business Services, BT, Dimension Data, BCS Global and Tata Communications.

With double digit growth in demand for videoconferencing and telepresence systems, Europe represents 27 percent of the total global market for videoconferencing and telepresence systems. The European market for these products was valued nearly $450m in 2010, and is forecast to grow at 18.4 percent CAGR over the period to 2016.

Why telepresence?
Telepresence has played a significant role in helping to change the attitudes of many business leaders towards visual collaboration as an effective communications tool.

The concept of telepresence has been around since the late 1990s, with companies like Teliris, Destiny Conferencing and Telepresence Tech delivering high end systems to a niche market. However, it took the entry of HP and Cisco in 2005 to bring telepresence into the mainstream. Cisco, in particular, has made massive efforts to develop visual collaboration as an everyday communications tool. The company’s investments in promoting telepresence were followed quickly by the acquisition of the videoconferencing company Tandberg, making Cisco – along with Polycom – a market leader.

As original conceived, telepresence was meant to replicate – as closely as possible – the experience of holding a face-to-face meeting. It differs from videoconferencing in two significant ways:
– It uses a number of ‘tricks’ of technology and human psychology to help create a sense that the meeting participants are actually in the same room.  This is termed immersive telepresence.  A combination of high definition audio and video, large screen size, apparent direct eye contact between the participants and careful room design combine to generate an illusion of being physically in the same location.
– The use of managed service eliminates the main of the challenges of setting up visual communication between to distant locations. This close integration of high quality technologies with a managed services wrap-around was critical to the success that Cisco, Polycom and others have achieved with telepresence over the last five years.

The opinions of many business users of videoconferencing had been skewed by poor experience –due largely to the variability of getting reliable connectivity, rather than the capabilities of the endpoint products. By closely managing endpoint configuration and call set up across the networks, the managed services component of telepresence dramatically improves user experience, helping convince decision-makers of the benefits that visual collaboration.

This change in attitude towards telepresence and videoconferencing has coincided with tremendous developments in technology and greater competition in the marketplace, increasing choice and driving down average prices. The prices of telepresence and high definition videoconferencing have continued to fall, while improvements in network and managed services means making video calls to other offices is easier, cheaper and more reliable.

Today, the distinction and price differential between telepresence and high definition videoconferencing systems are quickly blurring, and companies increasingly look to service providers to manage all of their video estates – rather than just the telepresence rooms.

Telepresence in Europe
In Europe, the use of communication technologies like telepresence to support ‘meetings without moving’ continues to lag behind North America. A preference for traditional face-to-face business discussions still predominates, particularly in Southern Europe.

A survey of European business leaders conducted by Frost & Sullivan in August 2011 showed that face-to-face interaction remains important; 58 percent of respondents indicated that they would have a face-to-face meeting on at least a daily basis. This contrasted with 38 percent reporting that they would use audioconferencing two to three times a week.

Significantly, the survey indicated that 10 percent of respondents said they now used some form of visual collaboration on a daily basis. This number increases to 17 percent for those reporting its use on a weekly basis. When asked about the applications to which visual collaboration was put within companies, staff communications topped the list – followed by product development discussions, product demonstrations and then customer presentations.

Notably, however, European companies have been quicker than many of their counterparts in the North American and Asia-Pacific regions in responding to environment concerns over carbon emissions generated by business travel. Although the recession and flattening of business growth pushed carbon issues, the urgent need to cut travel costs has continued to stimulate both interest and demand for telepresence, and visual collaboration generally.

These figures represent significant growth in the use of visual collaboration tools like videoconferencing and telepresence, and underscore the sales growth rates the industry has been reporting over the last 12 to 18 months.

Developments for 2012
With companies now having more ways to communication using visual collaboration than ever before, there is a pressing demand for greater business-to-business connectivity.

The majority of telepresence deployments are used solely for communications within a single company, with a telepresence suite in one office only being able to connect to the telepresence suites in other offices of the same company. As businesses have pushed to maximise the return on their investments in telepresence have they demand the ability to link telepresence to their existing videoconferencing systems, and increasingly to the telepresence and videoconferencing rooms of their customers and supplies.

Seamless and reliable interoperability between all brands and types of visual collaboration products is therefore a high priority for the industry, which has responded with cross-vendor initiatives from Cisco and Polycom aimed at harmonizing standards. Expect to see a lot more developments in this area during 2012, with Polycom continuing to promote its Open Visual Communications Consortium and Cisco rolling out its TelePresence Exchange System.

Additionally, more companies are focusing on the SMB company segment with visual collaboration services that can be delivered or supported from the Cloud.  Cisco’s TelePresence Callway service allows businesses to buy or lease video endpoints which can then be connected to a network service, managed directly by Cisco.

While 2012 will undoubtedly prove to be a difficult year for many businesses across Europe, the benefits that telepresence and other forms of visual collaboration offer can help them in cutting costs and increasing efficiencies. Those companies in Europe, as in other parts of the World, that are growing their visual collaboration capacity and deploying it effectively are likely to become more agile and better able to survive the rigours of the chilling economic climate ahead.