Web-based Telepresence: Too good to be true?

High-definition desktop video conferencing over the Internet for small businesses may sound like a pipe dream, but Vidyo, a four-year-old software developer that launched its first product a year ago, claims to be able to deliver it today.

The company’s new VidyoOne product, launched in October, is an ‘appliance’ that small businesses can install in their own data centers or at a collocation facility. It uses patented Vidyo technology to enable conferences with video at up to 720p (pixels of vertical resolution), equivalent to broadcast HDTV.

The cost? A five-port VidyoOne server that supports up to 25 users and 5 simultaneous participants sells for $7,000. A 10-port, 50-user VidyoOne costs $14,000.

Vidyo can also arrange collocation at an all-in cost of $13 per month per user. That’s based on charges for collocating one rack and use of a 15 Mbps Internet connection, amortized over 25 users.

What’s the catch?

Well, there are a few. The cameras used must be capable of encoding video at 720p. (Most inexpensive webcams are not.) All the Internet connections involved have to be fast enough in both directions. (Some services—ADSL, for example—deliver very high throughput in the downlink but less than 500 Kbps up, which will not be enough for 720p.) And the computers at each end point must have available CPU capacity to process high-resolution streaming video.

The Vidyo technology may not always be able to deliver true HD video—it’s rarely practical to stream at a full 30 frames per second, for example—but the quality is consistently superior to other Internet-based conferencing technologies we’ve seen.

“We’re calling it personal telepresence,” says Vidyo senior vice president of marketing, Marty Hollander. “We’re able to clearly see each other’s responses. It’s like you’re there in the same room.”

Telepresence is both a trade name for HD-quality room systems from Cisco, and a generic term for any video conferencing system that delivers very high-quality video and audio, often in specially designed conference rooms with multiple HD screens. Telepresence has revitalized the teleconferencing industry in recent years.

“Telepresence finally brings video conferencing to a level that people find compelling to use, that makes them want to use it,” Hollander says.

But it’s enormously expensive. Each room designed for and equipped with gear from telepresence suppliers such as Cisco and Hewlett-Packard costs $300,000 or more, Hollander says. Charges for bandwidth can run into the tens of thousands a month.

And companies that use conventional telepresence technology are limited in who they can conference with—at least at the highest quality of which the system is capable—because few other organizations have made the same kind of investment.

Vidyo’s idea was to bring telepresence, or something like it, to the business masses. Putting it on the Internet rather than dedicated, managed links reduces operating costs. Putting it on the desktop and leveraging investments in computers, speakers, and webcams reduces capital costs and broadens the base of potential users.

But conventional telepresence systems with their Multipoint Control Units (MCUs) could never work well with the variable bandwidth, processing power, and screen resolutions of such an environment.

Vidyo claims its technology, which recently received patent protection, overcomes the problems of using the Internet for video by turning conventional conferencing technology on its ear. “It’s the first new video conferencing architecture introduced in more than a decade,” Hollander says.

Vidyo still uses a centrally-located server, but it eliminates the expensive MCU of conventional systems—and the latency it introduces as it aggregates and processes video streams from multiple end points. The Vidyo system uses a software client at end points to leverage desktop processing power instead. (The software downloads in a few seconds the first time a user participates in a conference.)

The system also senses available bandwidth in a link as well as available processing power and screen resolution and sends only the packets that can be carried efficiently over the link and used by an end point. And it adjusts on the fly to changing conditions on the Internet and at end points.

Enterprise VoIPplanet tested the technology in conferences with Vidyo personnel and on our own. In conferences with Vidyo, Hollander was able to send 720p video, but at 15 fps—good enough, as Vidyo claims, to be able to clearly discern nuances of body language and facial expression, but not really the same as HDTV or true telepresence.

Not only is the Vidyo image larger and clearer than in other Web-based video services, the jerkiness, freezing, and pixilation seen occasionally—or often, depending on quality of connection—are almost entirely absent. While fast movement causes some slight blurring at 15 fps, motion remains smooth, the rest of the image clear.

Even at 540p and 15 fps, a more practical quality level given the installed base of webcams and available Internet connections in small businesses, video was generally smoother, clearer and more stable than with other online video conferencing services we’ve tried, even with multiple participants.

Video during test conferences within VoIPplanet was slightly lower quality than in the conferences with Vidyo, but still impressive. One end point in these conferences used a 5 Mbps home DSL connection and the built-in webcam and microphone in a recent-model Toshiba laptop. The other used a 10 Mbps home cable connection (but with only 500 Kbps up), a Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebooks webcam and Chat 50 USB VoIP speaker phone from ClearOne.

Audio was problematic in some of the VoIPplanet conferences. Echo on some calls made normal conversation impossible. Turning on the Vidyo client software’s beta echo cancellation feature eliminated that problem but degraded audio quality somewhat.

Vidyo says its audio system allows participants to talk over each other, with both sides of the conversation still audible. This was not always the case in our tests. On most calls, audio from one end tended to fade or break up when the party at the other end began speaking.

This may have been caused by a less than optimal audio set-up at one end. Vidyo recommends using a USB headset or speaker phone with built-in echo cancellation such as the Chat 50 rather than a laptop microphone and speakers. Or it may have been the relatively weak uplink channels in the home Internet services used.

The Vidyo client software was easy to set up. It allows users considerable flexibility in how they set up the screen for a conference. They can choose how many windows to keep open in multi-point conferences and whether their own video window is visible. By default, the system senses which participant is speaking and makes that person’s window larger on other participants’ screens.

The software also provides dynamic status information about bandwidth and processor performance and screen resolution, making it easier to troubleshoot problems or simply monitor conditions during a conference.

It also enables simple application sharing that worked well, although we noticed delay in sending screen refreshes in some cases.

Vidyo is an interesting, but possibly difficult, proposition. The technology delivers video quality superior to other online conferencing services, but it does require a capital outlay—at least in the business model Vidyo itself is promoting with the VidyoOne products.

Will small businesses in particular buy into this idea when they can get video conferencing with no upfront investment from providers such as Skype and Oovoo—albeit with lower quality? It remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Vidyo is in the early days of pursuing a different model, licensing its technology to others, including Cisco, Google (for GoogleTalk) and online service providers such as CoroWare Inc. and Connexus Inc. Worth checking out.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog at http://afterbyte.blogspot.com/.

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