Lifesize Unity Solutions Add Fuel to Debate Over Future of Telepresence

Lifesize’s all-in-one video conferencing offerings are touted as alternatives to more expensive telepresence systems from the likes of Cisco and Polycom.

Lifesize Communications is rolling out a pair of all-in-one high-definition video conferencing solutions that officials said offer the advantages of HD telepresence systems without the high costs and complexities.

Lifesize officials on May 15 unveiled the first offerings in their new Unity Series, the Unity 50 and Unity 500 solutions. The all-in-one systems not only offer businesses HD video conferencing, but they can be set up quickly and operated easily, all at a fraction of the cost of larger immersive telepresence systems from the likes of Cisco Systems and Polycom, according to company officials.

The Unity offerings not only will drive down costs for enterprises looking for alternatives to the more expensive solutions, but also bring HD video conferencing capabilities to smaller companies that in the past may not have been able to afford them, according to Michael Helmbrecht, vice president and general manager of video solutions at LifeSize, which is owned by Logitech.

€œWith the LifeSize Unity Series, the telepresence experience is now in reach for companies of all sizes,€ Helmbrecht said in a statement €œBusinesses need to speed decision making and improve productivity across the entire organization. By creating a series of products optimized to provide a telepresence-class experience, yet simple to deploy and use, we are making HD video conferencing easier than ever to bring to every home office, executive office or conference room.€

With the Unity Series, Lifesize joins other video collaboration vendors€”such as Vidyo, with its VidyoPanorama offering€”looking to provide businesses with cost-effective alternatives to what Cisco and Polycom offer. The company also is adding fuel to a debate about the future of traditional telepresence systems that was kicked off by a column on Forbes.comMay 3. In that column, Jeff Cavins, CEO of FuzeBox€”which provides cloud-based video conferencing and telepresence services€”argued that the cost and complexity associated with the systems from Cisco and Polycom are dooming their telepresence businesses, due in large part to the rise of less costly alternatives.

€œThanks to these [traditional] systems, telepresence has grown into a 4 billion-dollar per year industry,€ Cavins wrote. €œToday, however, the juggernauts of the market, such as Cisco and Polycom, are being outmaneuvered by a number of upstart companies.€

Lifesize€™s Helmbrecht, in a May 14 post on the company blog, had a similar point of view.

€œSo why is telepresence becoming obsolete,€ he wrote. €œThe answer comes down to the two most valuable aspects of any company€™s business: time and money.€

Not everyone agrees. Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, said in a May 9 post on the No Jitter blog site that talk of telepresence€™s imminent demise is premature. His reasoning? While mobility, interoperability and the cloud will make it easier to offer cheaper and easier high-quality video, neither Cisco nor Polycom have quit improving their products.

€œThe real question to be asked here is whether there is enough innovation left in telepresence to allow Polycom and Cisco to stay ahead of the commodity curve, and I think the answer to that is yes,€ Kerravala wrote.

Their telepresence systems do a good job replicating the face-to-face aspect of meetings, he said, but there are a number of other areas where they can€”and most likely will€”be improved. Those innovations could include creating more links to other collaborative applications, improving desktop and document sharing, real-time scanning for sharing paper notes, improved integration with white boards, business card scanners, easier recording capabilities and tagging of people, Kerravala said.

€œSo are the telepresence business units for Polycom and Cisco in trouble, as the article would suggest?€ he wrote. €œCertainly, if they remain as is, but I still think there is tremendous amount of innovation to be done by both companies to stay ahead of the competitive curve.€

Lifesize€™s Unity solutions€”two right now, with more on the way later this year, according to officials€”are part of that competitive curve. The integrated offerings take minutes to assemble (without the need of tools) and bring high-quality video, audio and presentation features, and can be redeployed easily, they said. Unity 50 is a tabletop or wall-mounted solution offering 720p30 video quality with a 24-inch display. It€™s aimed at executive offices, small workplaces and home offices, and is powered by Lifesize€™s Passport technology, officials said.

Unity 500 offers a 40-inch screen, 1080p30 video quality and is targeting executive offices and small meeting rooms. Officials said it offers immersive video quality that can be assembled in less than 10 minutes, and is powered by Lifesize€™s Express 220 technology.

Lifesize officials point to price as a key differentiator, noting that the Unity starts at $3,999 and the Unity 500 at $19,999, much lower than the hundreds of thousands of dollars Cisco and Polycom charge for some of their telepresence offerings.

Video conferencing started getting serious looks from businesses during the economic downturn several years ago. Organizations began looking for ways to reduce travel costs and increase employee productivity. Now the market is growing fast. IDC analysts said in March that the global video conferencing market grew to about $2.7 billion in revenue in 2011, about a 20.6 percent jump over 2010. They expect revenue to jump to $3.2 billion in 2012, a rise of about 18.7 percent.