As telepresence, the much refined video conferencing system, enters the travel-reluctant market, this could also open up new careers for network engineers. Gary Flood investigates.

Though it's been around for a while, video conferencing has never really become the big deal that on paper it should be.

After all, it surely makes eminent sense for busy business people to save time and corporate travel budget to interact with each other by screen in the comfort of their own offices instead of dealing with the charms of Heathrow T5 or Virgin Trains.

And as we all know, there's a Green aspect to minimising carbon footprints. But talking to each other by video or webcam remains a minority sport, at least in the world of 9 to 5.

That may be set to change. A much more sophisticated version of all this has been quietly building momentum on the sidelines - and if companies like HP and Cisco have their way, it will soon be galloping to centre stage. Meet the latest and greatest in remote interaction with your colleagues: Telepresence.

To get this clear from the start, this isn't something you're going to be using on your PC and it's not as yet available in Currys, shall we say. Telepresence is on the order of 20 times more expensive than standard video conferencing, with equipment on the order of $80,000 to $500,000 to install.

Despite that astonishing disparity in price, and the fact that it represents less than half of 1 per cent of units shipped, nonetheless telepresence makes up a massive 15 to 20 per cent of the video conferencing market total, according to US market specialists Wainhouse Research.

What's going on here? It turns out corporates are happy to shell out the big bucks for all this as the user experience is so much richer than standard video conferencing, seeming to literally bring the other parties into the same room. It is being seen as the technology that finally delivers what we were promised all along by the video conferencing people.

‘Telepresence systems create an effect [that] provides life-size images of the face and upper body of the remote participants while maintaining a position and proximity perspective that allows the remote participants to appear to be sitting on the other side of a conference-room table,’ says the analyst group.

Such fancy stuff has been around since the early 1990s, but has only really started to happen in the middle of the decade when HP (with its Halo product) and Cisco (with Cisco TelePresence) started to push this into the enterprise space, both as an on-premise buy but also as a hosted service.

Indeed Cisco believes so strongly in the potential of this 'super' video conferencing delivery mechanism that in December it moved to complete a major ($3.4bn) buyout of Swedish comms player Tandberg - mainly for its telepresence portfolio, it told Wall St. As the world's largest computer networking equipment maker, therefore, if Cisco is moving into this area, networking professionals might do worse than pay attention to why.

One way to start is to hear what the man at the top thinks. The CEO of Cisco Systems, John Chambers, in June 2006 (at the Networkers Conference) publicly compared telepresence to teleporting as in Star Trek. Which is cool... but some of us might pick up our ears a bit more when we hear he added that he sees the technology as a potential billion dollar market for his company.

Basically, Cisco reckons networks of all sorts will have to become more capable of handling rich media like video, in both the business and consumer context. It predicts that over 91 per cent of global consumer traffic will be in the form of video - TV, video on demand, internet, instant messaging and video calls (including telepresence) - by 2013. (It says it's already around 33 per cent.) The comms giant is not alone in this conclusion: number cruncher Frost & Sullivan predicts that the telepresence market may reach $4.7 billion in revenue worldwide by 2014, for instance.

And it also believes there's a job market growing in parallel that needs to be serviced in terms of training and qualifications. If it's right, this could represent a whole new career path, potentially, for network engineers, argues the company's senior manager for learning and development for Cisco Training (its education arm), Christine Yoshida:

'We see continued growth of expectations of what networks can and should do and as a result we want to offer continually improving qualifications to make sure candidates have the best skill sets,' she says. 'Being able to demonstrate proficiency with the latest technology on the market is very much part of that mission.'

Specifically, as of January 2010, Cisco will offer two new telepresence qualifications - one that would act as an extension of existing CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) qualifications (and indeed requires them) but also a wholly new certificate at a less network-skilled level that's basically a new job function in IT. These are the Cisco TelePresence Solutions Specialist course and exam combination and the Cisco TelePresence Installations Specialist.

The former qualification is centred on the planning, logistics and technology side of running telepresence in a company, while the latter is more about installation and audio visual skills, like evaluation of the projected telepresence environment, getting the camera angle right and so on. 'This [qualification] is an opportunity for a whole new skill set, quite different from what the traditional CCNA might look like,' confirms Yoshida.

As the two programmes are just rolling out globally, it was simply too early for us to get a chance to talk to anyone who'd taken them. But we did manage to speak to one of Cisco's training partners, Irene Kinoshita, CEO of a company called Ascolta, which interestingly also delivers some training content via telepresence to the UK among other countries.

'This is a big deal,' she is convinced. 'We've had a few go-arounds with video conferencing and remote working and video, but the technology really is that much more advanced now. We've seen it used very effectively for both training content and virtual classrooms as well as for business meetings. I think it's going to be a market that really picks up as the travel restrictions and Green arguments continue, and for the IT professional I have to say this is a genuinely growing, new and exciting market to get into. It's also got huge potential in things like telemedicine, for instance.'

Put all that together and it seems that this time, the idea of people interacting in a really high-bandwidth, rich-content, but also convincing and life-like fashion, no matter where they physically are in the world, is here. And that could be genuine opportunity for network specialists who feel they don't necessarily want to fade into the cloud, but get new careers as supporters of this phenomenon.