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Cisco Launching Virtual Meetings Tool

Video conferencing has long been plagued by the detached feel of talking to a television set, often with awkward audio delays and jerky video.

But Cisco Systems Inc. on Monday plans to launch a tool for orchestrating corporate meetings between far-flung parties that it claims will deliver a vastly more intimate experience.

The San Jose-based networking gear maker is releasing Cisco TelePresence, the company's first foray into the fledgling "telepresence" market.

The term is industry jargon for attempting to simulate real-time interactions between people in different locations using high-definition monitors, highly sensitive audio equipment and integrated networking gear.

The technology aims to be so realistic as to make conference-call participants believe the person talking on the monitor is actually in the same room.

Several companies, including Hewlett-Packard Co., already offer telepresence products. The market is projected to grow to $300 million by 2008, according to technology research firm Gartner Inc.

Cisco, which makes the routers and switches used to link networks, is banking that large corporate clients will flock to the technology and propel it into a billion-dollar business.

One of Cisco's newest products is a high-end room that can accommodate up to 12 people around the virtual table and comes with three 65-inch plasma displays, three high-definition cameras, and the table and lighting. Price: $299,000.

The other is a single-screen version that costs $79,000 and can accommodate four people.

Both products are designed to run across a company's existing network, said Marthin De Beer, vice president of Cisco's Emerging Markets Technology Group.

Corporate clients must have robust bandwidth; the high-end room uses about 10 megabits of bandwidth per second.

De Beer said the technology marks a dramatic improvement in reliability, ease of use and overall realism over video conferencing products and solves a lingering business dilemma.

"This has been an elusive dream for many years," he said. "With all the technologies of the past, people were never comfortable to use it for real business, to close that deal or sign that contract."

David Willis, chief of research for Gartner, said the steep price and network requirements make Cisco's products irrelevant for all but the largest of customers. But he was impressed with the technology.

"It's an amazing illusion," he said. "It really pulls off the experience of a real meeting. And I hate video conferencing ... But this is like David Copperfield. This is like magic."

Cisco said the systems are already available and should begin shipping to customers in about four weeks.

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