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Even a tough economy failed to stop the growth of telepresence in 2009, according to a study from ABI Research. Sales of telepresence hardware, software and services reached $567 million last year, and annual revenue is expected to top $2.7 billion by 2015.

According to ABI, almost every size of company has access to some kind of videoconferencing or telepresence system, whether they own the equipment themselves or rent space from others. Although videoconferencing and telepresence are two different things, the lines between the two have blurred in the last year, said Dan Shey, ABI Research’s enterprise practice director. As he noted, it’s difficult to talk about one without the other, as they both offer the same basic thing – live video communications.

“The 2009 recession did hurt the telepresence market even though it did grow,” Shey said. “But it caused companies to rethink capital budgets and how to maintain collaboration while decreasing costs. The budget rethink led to spending money on smaller room/desktop videoconferencing/HD systems rather than large room, immersive telepresence systems, but also in renting telepresence facilities, with several major hotel chains offering these services.”

The “Enterprise Telepresence and Video Conferencing” study found the reasons businesses continue to adopt telepresence systems are the same as they were even before the recession hit. Companies see telepresence as a way to reduce or eliminate travel budgets, as well as to expand the supply chain to international locations where language barriers may make it easier to communicate with physical cues like hand gestures.

“But the drivers that I think will contribute to greater use of telepresence in the future are carbon footprint reduction, telepresence sessions that include greater use of multimedia sharing, and finally, better sharing of key personnel,” Shey said.

Physically sending a key executive or knowledge worker to off-site locations is inefficient and expensive, but it’s also hard on the person doing the travelling, he added.

“It is far easier to use telepresence for a single individual’s contact with multiple sites than flying them everywhere. Of course, this only works when telepresence systems are available,” Shey said.

Telepresence that is enhanced with unified communications features like whiteboards, document sharing and webcam videos, as well as the growth of managed and cloud telepresence services from various vendors (including Glowpoint, BT Onesource, Verizon and AT&T), is also driving the growth in telepresence sales. Businesses are also interested in telepresence applications that are being extended to laptops and smartphones.

“The point is that the recession accelerated the supplier market’s portfolio expansion of conferencing products so that companies have a continuum of products to choose from — videoconferencing to telepresence. The spectrum of products offers a range of price points which not only is more palatable from a budget perspective but then expands the addressable market beyond Fortune 500 companies,” Shey said.

However, the largest growth is still showing in the medium to large enterprise segments since such companies are more likely to have a global reach of operations and a need to reduce costs related to a dispersed workforce.

“Nearly any size company has access to telepresence and video conferencing services,” says David Lemelin, director of the Enterprise Communications Research Service at ABI Research. “Suppliers are helping businesses transition to telepresence by introducing personal and room-based HD video conferencing solutions. Telepresence room rentals are also on the rise.”

The key equipment suppliers in the telepresence in the space include Cisco Systems (and Tandberg, which Cisco acquired last year), Polycom, DVE and Lifesize (acquired by Logitech).