Videoconferencing & Telepresence: Dropping Prices, Rising Quality

Every day it’s becoming easier to get your hands on a pair of tools that enhance communication in the business environment: Videoconferencing is getting progressively cheaper, while telepresence picks up muscle, at the same time shedding bandwidth requirements.

A pair of recent announcements helps illustrate these related trends.

Radvision has announced a low-cost extension to its XT 1000 HD meeting room solution. The add-on will allow desktop software users both inside and outside an organization to join in meetings.

Meanwhile, Polycom has added a suite of new features and updated the look of its Telepresence Experience (TPX) offering, promising a richer experience at a lower price point than that of the competition.

On the teleconferencing side, Radvision’s new SCOPIA XT1000 SMB Solution acts as a simple plug-in to the XT 1000 HD meeting room, which lists at $7,400. With a price point less than $1,000, the desktop extension offers the opportunity to extend the participant range for significantly less than the costs of running multiple instances of the base product.

With no registration required, the downloadable plug-in style tool aims to address SMBs’ need for simplicity. Radvision has been developing its solutions in cooperation with Samsung, bringing to bear the equipment maker’s considerable buying power to keep the price down, another key SMB concern, said vice president for Enterprise Marketing Robert Romano.

That low cost of entry could give small businesses the push they need to get into the game. “Up to now, the solutions have been way too expensive for SMBs and way too complicated to install, service and support,” he said.

Looking at the rising trend toward more affordable conferencing, Romano said uptake of Webcams, Skype with video, and related services on the consumer said has been a driving force. That rising interest is pushing new competition among vendors. “You’ve seen a tremendous amount of focus on it and awareness of it,” he said. As a result, “prices are coming down and quality is going up.”

When it comes to a price play, Polycom meanwhile is taking an aggressive stand with its latest telepresence offering, the Open Telepresence Experience (OTX) 300. Including the price of the software, equipment, bandwidth, services, and maintenance, the company estimates the solution will cost a company up to $2.1 million less in the first year than a comparable deployment from Cisco – an unusually specific claim.

Part of the savings will come through the company’s embrace of the H.264 High Profile video compression standard. That should help users cut their bandwidth requirements roughly in half, said Laura Shay, director of product marketing.

Other vendors soon will jump on the H.264 bandwagon, but for now it’s giving Polycom an edge, Shay said. “It is a competitive differentiator right now and it will be, I expect, for not more than six months. I expect other vendors will follow suit before the end of year,” she said.

While a standards-based approach may open the door to future competition, it also helps ease transitions for potential users, Shay said. “People are not going to just deploy immersive telepresence,” she said. “They have all these existing videoconferencing systems sitting on their desktops, and if the new telepresence system can’t talk to everything else on that system, then the ROI of telepresence has just dropped dramatically.”

Polycom’s OTX 300 comes with a range of enhancements: Screen size is up from 60 to 65 inches, while a thinner border creates a more seamless look between displays. A front wall now hides the speakers, resolution is up from 720 P to 1080 P. An optional back wall can mask obtrusive windows or doors behind participants.

The new tools will be a free upgrade from the existing TPX system—free being a relative term here, since Polycom users are required to buy the service contract. “Some people don’t like it,” Shay said, “but we know that when we come out with new technology in six months, they are going to want it.”

Unlike teleconferencing, where rising demand is pushing down prices, Shay predicted the cost of telepresence won’t vary much in the near future. “As technology gets cheaper, costs are going to come down a bit, but probably not much,” she said. “What you will have is better, faster, more life-like technology for the same price, or maybe a little lower.”

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