Polycom ATX: unbundling telepresence

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Polycom's TPX300: unbindled as the ATX

In the early days of telepresence, the only way for end-users to get a guaranteed, immersive telepresence experience was to invest in a single-source solution from one of the major vendors. AV integrators had little opportunity to offer differentiated solutions. AV News finds that the release of Polycom’s ATX telepresence solution gives integrators just that opportunity.

Remember the early days of telepresence – way back in 2006? When we were obsessing about what was and what wasn’t telepresence? The definition that appealed to us at the time was that put forward by Howard Lichtman of the Human Productivity Lab. He said that telepresence is: “the science and art of creating visual conferencing environments that address the human factors of the participants and duplicate, as closely as possible, an in-person experience.”

He continued that: “While a variety of methods can be used to deliver telepresence solutions, they typically offer some combination of the following improvements over the ‘talking heads’ experience of traditional videoconferencing: life-size participants; fluid motion; accurate flesh tones; studio quality video, lighting and acoustics; the absence of visible technology; true eye contact, or the approximation of eye contact in large group settings; immersive and/or mirrored environments, where participants feel as if they are in the same physical space; and a consistency-of-quality between disparate locations.”

While the definition is useful because it provides a checklist of telepresence system attributes, nowhere does it say that Cisco, or any other vendor for that matter, has to supply all the flatscreen displays, furniture or that it needs to come round and paint the customer’s meeting room walls.

Nonetheless, the practicalities of the marketplace determined that customers seeking a solution that carried a manufacturer’s warranty had little choice but to source all of the system components from the chosen vendor. Even now, there are instances where shipping MDF tables and rebadged displays, half way around the world does actually make sense. There are customers that demand a degree of uniformity in the installation and a network of support, for a global telepresence implementation, that only a single-source solution can offer.

Integration option

Ian Vickerage, managing director of the Imago Group believes that, in fact, most customers for high-end telepresence would still prefer a solution sourced entirely from one of the big VC brands, if it wasn’t so difficult to justify the price premium that this attracts. Delegating the sourcing of some of the component parts enables an integrator to design and install a solution appropriate to the customer’s needs and budget. It also offers the integrator the opportunity to put forward a differentiated product that is, potentially at least, unique to its supplier.

Devolving the power to source elements of a telepresence solution to the integrator level obviously raises issues for the vendor of the core components. A Polycom telepresence solution still carries its vendor’s brand, no matter who makes the tables. LifeSize Communications took the initiative to leave the choice of ancillary products to the integrator early on (probably because they don’t sell tables and screens), but other vendors have been more circumspect.

Tandberg, for example, declined to comment on the company’s willingness to empower integrators to offer differentiated solutions, based on the company’s technology. But both LifeSize and now Polycom support the concept, with appropriate guidelines in place governing specifications and good practice when specifying the equipment and carrying out the installation.

From the end-user customer’s perspective, we believe that the crucial factor will be the extent to which the provider of the core technology will be prepared to stand behind the solution. This is important in two respects, with the first being performance guarantees and the second continuity of support in the event that the integrator is no longer around or has switched allegiance to another vendor.

ATX advantages

Polycom has addressed precisely these issues with its announcement of the Polycom Architected Telepresence Experience (ATX). In essence, this is the guts of a Polycom TPX solution, with the selection of some of the ancillary equipment choices delegated to the integrator level of the channel. (We will also be seeing suggested packages on offer at the distribution).

With ATX, Polycom has made its technology much more available without sacrificing a great deal of its commercial advantage. To the end-user, Vickerage says that the savings are potentially considerable. A fully implemented and installed Polycom TPX solution can cost up to $250,000.

In comparison, the Polycom elements of the ATX solution are priced around $65,000 in the US. Adding screens, furniture, audio and other ancillary elements to the Polycom components should take the total, to the end-user, to around half of a comparable Polycom TPX.

Aside from these cost-savings, Polycom points the advantages of an integrated solution where there are specific application requirements. Integrators can use their expertise and relationships with third party suppliers to supplement the standard solution.

End-users also have the flexibility to utilise existing space, furniture and room décor. In an ATX solution, meeting spaces, furniture, displays and decor are customisable to fit unique ‘use models’ and environmental requirements.

Regulated choices

The flipside of this flexibility is the potential for anarchy – solutions that the vendor of the core technology finds it impossible to endorse. To avoid this problem, Polycom has published a set of guidelines for its authorised resellers.  These are comprehensive, stipulating everything from room size, ceiling height, size and placement of windows, wall textures and even paint colours.

Installing an ATX solution requires no small commitment from the end-user. They might need to: change ceiling materials and heights; run new power circuits into the room; repaint or cover walls; carpet the floors; add curtains or blinds to the windows; change the lighting; and to add new network connections and phone sockets.

Achieving a realistic telepresence effect also depends on the selection and correct positioning of displays and furniture. Polycom requires that the displays for an ATX installation are between 58 and 65 inches in size. Bezels on the right and left side of the displays must be no larger than 3 inches wide.

Each display must have an HDMI input and must be able to go into sleep or standby mode when no video is driven to it. The displays must be able to support HD 1920 x 1080 resolution at 60Hz without over-scan or under-scan.

Displays must be mounted on a wall so that they are horizontally aligned and positioned next to each other with no space between the bezels. The displays must be mounted so that the bottom edge of the active video on the displays is at the same height as the tabletop.

Room design

The specification and placement of the furniture in the room is also important in achieving in immersive telepresence. Tables, in an ATX setup, must be rectangular and have a minimum length of 180 inches. They must be positioned to align with the vertical centre of the middle display. Distance away from the displays is also important: the distance from the rear edge of the table to the front of the displays must be 110 inches.

Chairs are specified both in terms of arm span and wheelbase. To ensure that conference participants appear on the appropriate display, but that they do not appear on more than one display, chairs have to be placed in specific locations. To help participants keep their chairs at the proper locations at the table, Polycom recommends a range of measures including place mats, divisions on the floor or and even physical barriers under the table.

Having determined the locations of the participants within the room, Polycom specifies the placement of cameras, microphones and loudspeakers. The Polycom supplied elements of ATX include three EagleEye 1080p cameras. These must be centred above each display, either fixed to the wall (recommended) or the top of the displays.

Integrators are allowed to specify their own choice of speakers, but Polycom recommends using the

Polycom StereoSurround kit (two speakers and a subwoofer). Integrators’ choice of speakers has to be equivalent to the speakers provided with the StereoSurround kit. Speakers have to be attached to the wall near the displays, using OmniMount universal speaker mounting brackets or an equivalent.

The ceiling microphone arrays are supplied by Polycom.  Three Polycom HDX units are supplied. If the room architecture rules out ceiling microphones, tabletop models are available as an option.

Performance

If the guidelines are followed, the result, when all of the elements are hooked up to the Polycom codec, should be an immersive telepresence solutions with support for 1080p and 720p (60 frames per second) – identical, in fact, to the TPX product on which ATX is based.

Past experience at LifeSize of offering core solutions, to which integrators add their choice of ancillary equipment, has met with widespread approval from end-user customers. Stacy Saxon, director of corporate marketing for LifeSize Communications, says:

“Since telepresence in its truest sense is HD video communications optimised by the surrounding environment, customers design their environment as much or as little as they want, to achieve their desired degree of ‘immersion’. By not trying to force-fit a fixed configuration, customers generally don’t have the expense of retrofitting rooms or building out new spaces, nor limiting the multi-screen telepresence systems to only select locations.”

“The ‘LifeSize Conference Series’ Integrator Guide’ defines best practices and recommendations for design, configuration and installation of the LifeSize Conference systems. The guide provides comprehensive, detailed instruction from displays to peripherals to paint color – enabling the most immersive, mirrored room effect to be achieved. Topics include: power usage; environmental specifications; acoustics; lighting; wall colour; and furniture arrangement.”

“We find that many customers today prefer a choice in their telepresence deployments. Polycom’s announcement further demonstrates the customer demand for flexibility and adaptability.”

Vickerage says that Imago will soon be announcing some product packages designed to complement Polycom ATX. These will offer the end-user cost-savings and the integrator opportunities to add margin and value.

Caption:

Polycom’s TPX telepresence solution is now available in a format that allows integrators to select their choice of screens, furniture and other components to create differentiated, lower cost solutions.

Abridged and republished from AV News September 2009


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