The Future Of Videoconferencing

How cool would this be?

VARs in the not-too-distant future could be deploying solutions that turn an entire wall of a CEO's office into a high-definition video display, providing a virtual window into a remote location thousands of miles away. Or video solutions that project a 3-D image that can be viewed from all sides with accurate color and meticulous detail. Or education solutions that allow a professor to interact with hundreds of students simultaneously across the globe with a level of realism that makes it seem as if that teacher is right there in the room with them.

To hear executives from videoconferencing vendors tell it, these sci-fi-esque offerings could move from concept to reality within the next few years. Many of them are technically possible now, just not smooth enough or cheap enough for mass adoption.

While vendors paint a tantalizing picture of future technology, solution providers today find themselves in the position of having to prepare for it. They are grappling with the realities of a fast-paced transition that requires them to add new skills and adapt to new sales environments. But it's a shift they must make now to stay ahead of the curve and the competition.

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"Videoconferencing finally has everything it needs to flourish: broadband, big pipes, integration to the desktop is now simple," said Joseph Fuccillo, president and CTO of Juma Technology Corp., a solution provider in Farmingdale, NY. "I showed my daughter presence, how she could see if I'm online and launch a video call to me. She's so excited to see me. If it's easy enough for my eight-year-old to do it by herself, we've arrived."

The drive toward ubiquitous video in businesses and homes is without doubt underway, vendor and solution provider executives said.

"It's the most natural form of communications, right? None of us likes to go through life blindfolded, and we have been in the business world," said Marthin De Beer, senior vice president of the emerging technology group at Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif. "Learning how to type on a keyboard, having to read and write, versus communicating naturally, the technology never before was able to truly support that."

That's all changing as technologies such as high-definition (HD) videoconferencing and telepresence make their way into the market.

In a recent survey of 327 conferencing and collaboration customers, 23 percent said they are using HD videoconferencing, up from only four percent a year ago, according to Wainhouse Research. Another 23 percent said they plan to deploy it within a year, while another 20 percent said they plan to test it within a year.

In separate research, Wainhouse said that the telepresence market, while not expected to reach $1 billion by 2011, will grow steadily at well over 100 percent per year for the next four years. That's part of an overall unified communications products and services market that was projected to hit $22.6 billion in 2007, on its way to $48.7 billion by 2012, according to combined research from Wainhouse and In-Stat.

Vendors such as Cisco, Hewlett-Packard Co., Polycom Inc., Tandberg Inc., LifeSize Communications Inc., Telanetix Inc., and others have all entered the telepresence market, giving solution providers a flood of technology options.

"We do a lot of TelePresence installs," said Benjamin Patz, president and CEO of Coleman Technologies Inc., a solution provider in Orlando, Fla., of Cisco's TelePresence line of HD video products. "It is a challenge getting it into the mainstream because of the bandwidth requirements, but we see clearly what the future is going to be: It's going to be video."

Next: The IP Push

The push toward IP has brought video off of legacy networks and onto the corporate IP network, where channel partners and vendors are combining it with data and voice to create full-on converged communications solutions. In a paradigm that mimics what happened in the channel when voice moved to IP, networking VARs now need to bulk up on video expertise, while audio/video (A/V) solution providers find themselves seeking networking expertise.

Coleman's Patz notes that his company is constantly training to stay abreast of Cisco's technology and the various pieces that go into a full communications solution, and that includes video training.

A/V specialists need to add Internet, security, VoIP and convergence skills, while networking VARs need to understand videoconferencing and the impact of adding real-time interactive video to a network, said Joan Vandermate, vice president of marketing, videoconferencing vendor Polycom, Pleasanton, Calif.

"The natural evolution is that video is going to be part of the unified communications environment. It has to integrate with IM and voice, otherwise it's not usable," she said.

LifeSize, an HD videoconferencing vendor in Austin, Tex., already has about 120 A/V partners, but now is actively seeking networking VARs to add to its channel ranks.

The vendor in November signed a distribution deal with Tech Data Corp. specifically to find classic networking VARs, said Adam Taylor, executive vice present of worldwide sales and service.

"They know switches and routers, bandwidth, they are Cisco-certified, Extreme [Networks Inc.]-certified, they've got VoIP expertise, and video is a natural extension," Taylor said.

In addition to technology challenges, solution providers are also grappling with a new sales environment for video. The push onto the IP network means that the corporate buying decision is being made by a whole new set of people.

Wainhouse found in its survey that 52 percent of respondents said the IT department owns the purchase decision for videoconferencing, up from 41 percent the year before.

That's creating sales challenges for A/V focused solution providers like David Gormley, CEO of Adtech Systems, a Sudbury, Mass., solution provider that recently jumped into the telepresence game via a partnership with Telanetix.

Gormley contends that networking VARs don't have the expertise to sell and integrate video solutions. Yet now it's those networking VARs that customers are going to in order to buy video systems.

"It's a real problem," Gormley said, noting that it's a phenomenon he's seen growing over the past year. "I can't find the customers because they want to talk to their networking partner about it."

Adtech is currently developing a partnership strategy to see if it can team with a networking VAR to chase after video opportunities together.

Savvy partners like Adtech and Coleman aren't waiting to address the problems they face as they go after the video space.

Vendors said they are working to help channel partners find the new skills they need to tackle video. Polycom, for example, is investing more heavily in training and certification throughout 2008 to help educate the channel, executives said.

So what is it that video channel partners are preparing for?

Advances in video codecs, video cameras and HD displays are paving the way for the new breed of futuristic solutions that videoconferencing vendors are envisioning.

Cisco for example is already planning to expand its TelePresence line in both directions, adding higher-end systems that offer greater realism and tighter integration with business applications, as well as systems priced low enough to make their way into consumers' living rooms. The company within five years expects to have a system that is capable of producing a 180-degree 3-D view of an object, perfect for verticals such as the automotive industry where parts or models need to be shared.

When Cisco opened a new campus in Bangalore, India in October, it showcased a video technology demonstration that allowed De Beer to share the stage virtually with Chairman and CEO John Chambers.

"John was on stage there, and I was able to appear with John in Bangalore even though I was on a stage here in San Jose. The people in the audience literally gasped when I walked out on stage There's no screen or anything you can see. It looks like I'm right next to him in 3-D," De Beer said.

The demonstration combined Cisco's standard TelePresence codecs, a standard HD broadcast camera and a special display technology stretched across that stage that was nearly invisible to the audience. It's technology that could be used to bring experts, either individuals or even panels, together to address multiple audiences around the world, De Beer said.

"What if you could use this technology to have a professor teach at Stanford or Harvard and at the same time put that professor in front of 10 classrooms around the world, virtually?" he said.

In another large-scale technology demonstration, Panasonic at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas debuted its new 150-inch Viera, which it touts as the world's largest HD plasma display, but it didn't stop there. It also demonstrated LifeWall, a wall-sized interactive video display that uses facial recognition to customize its interface for individual users and enable content to follow a user as he moves throughout the room. When not in use, LifeWall can display virtual room dcor such as wallpaper, windows and framed images to blend into an existing environment.

Polycom at its recent channel partner conference showed off several technology concepts of how video could be used in the future, from a "video everywhere" scenario that allows users to make and receive video calls from any device over a wired or wireless connection, to virtual dining that would enable executives in New York to share a meal virtually with business partners in Tokyo, for example.

It's more than just the cool factor that will drive the development and eventual customer adoption of video, whether its telepresence today or futuristic video solutions tomorrow: It's the business case.

"The big value to these customers is their able to transform their business models. They can service their customers in a new way. They can put their best experts in front of customers face-to-face at a moments' notice. It helps them scale their resources a lot better than they have in the past. And they are shortening their engineering cycles and their sales cycles," De Beer said. "It's a great opportunity for our partners to invest in."