Telepresence has long been touted as a money-saving alternative to business travel. A boon for enterprises, whose middle managers may travel frequently, the pitch is somewhat less captivating for small and mid-size businesses, where owners and executives may not do much traveling.
Headquartered in Mumbai and Pittsburgh, Zenith IT Group subsidiary Vu Technologies has hit on a novel approach to selling remote-meeting technology into the SMB space. "We arent really replacing travel," said CEO Devita Saraf. "We are replacing phone calls. Instead of phoning people or sending cumbersome e-mails, these systems are so easy and affordable, people will say: Lets hang up the phone and just get on the teleconference."
To that end the company has just released its first Vu TelePresence system, geared specifically at the needs of small-business users.
Vu is betting its price point will make it worth a look, with systems priced between $1,499 and $3,300. Systems also can be leased for between $49.99 and $110 per month.
By comparison, high-end systems from Cisco and other enterprise-class providers typically cost upwards of $250,000. Midrange systems like the VidyoRoom HD-220 still may run in the $30,000 range, according to Information Week.
Saraf said the cost of Vu should strike a chord with those just entering the market for such systems. "Right now you have the expensive stuff and you have the free stuff, but there is absolutely nothing mid-market," she said.
Even as Vu has kept the cost low, the company has poured two and a half years research into developing the needed codecs to deliver high resolution on low-bandwidth systems. Its TelePresence system supports 720p, the shorthand name for HDTV video with a resolution of 1280×720 and a progressive scan.
The system comes with many of the bells and whistles of higher-end telepresence products. Users can share their PC screens with other participants; the system supports recording and archiving of conference sessions, and allows for multi-party conferencing of up to five parties including the host.
Theres a whiff of irony in the birth of Vu TelePresence. In the course of developing their business, Vu executives found themselves in need of teleconferencing capability and were disappointed in what they found. "We bought a competing system just to use in our company and it was just such a nightmare, it was slow and inadequate," Saraf said.
The company, which already had produced a television for sale in the Indian market, realized there might be a niche here, and so set about work on their own telepresence product.
"It was an inspiration: It showed us that there is a market for this and that we could do this much better," Saraf said. "We figured, well, since we have a full technology team, maybe we should try to solve this ourselves."
With its product ready for prime time, the company has taken a novel approach to bringing its wares to market. Rather than invite potential users to test-drive telepresence in their own offices, Vu offers customers and prospective users the chance to experiment with the tools in the real world. In rolling out Vu TelePresence, the company has simultaneously opened Vu TelePoint demonstration centers in 25 major cities. Users of the Vu TelePoint station can log in to conference with other TelePoint users or with Vu users already up and running elsewhere.
"We wanted to give them a space to get an actual demonstration of the product," Saraf said, noted that this should help SMB users find answers to some of their basic questions. "How is the sound? Do people look like people, or do they look like blobs?"
Over time, the TelePoint stations will add value to the overall Vu system by making it possible for executives on the go to commune with those in the home office. A simple log-in will initiate a connection between any TelePoint station and any existing user. Does it replace travel? No, but as Saraf points out, it replaces the usual phone call with something more personal, while delivering all the features of telepresence. "It makes the entire world your office," she said.