Telepresence catching on, but hold onto your wallet

Be prepared to fork over at least $100,000 for that in-the-same-room feeling

With the economy in a downturn, it's no surprise that companies have been slashing travel budgets. But at MetLife, officials say the focus is also on employees' quality of life, keeping them home as much as possible. As a result, the insurance giant has recently made a big push into telepresence technology.

This involves an "immersive video experience," or technology that provides high-end, high-definition visual and audio communications in a completely integrated environment. The goal is to make anyone involved in these meetings feel as if they're actually in the room with the other meeting participants, regardless of where everyone is physically based.

To achieve this, MetLife is using Cisco TelePresence in three dedicated conference rooms in Chicago, New York and New Jersey, and plans to expand to other offices nationally and internationally this year. The company's not yet sure how many more offices will use the technology.

"Instead of having to take people away from their families, you walk down to the room and turn on the lights and have your three-hour meeting and it's extremely effective," says Anthony Nugent, executive vice president of employee benefits sales. He regularly uses telepresence to communicate with his direct reports in Chicago and Somerset, N.J., and the clarity is so good that, he says with a laugh, "Everyone jokes around that they can reach a Coke across the table" from one location to another.

MetLife has seen a direct cost savings as well as better employee time efficiency and a way to help the company meet its "green initiative" goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 20% this year, says Nugent. The company finished its initial telepresence rollout last May and hasn't yet determined an exact savings, but Nugent estimates the use of the systems will provide double-digit ROI in travel savings alone.

Cisco's TelePresence
Cisco's TelePresence promises "life-size" images to make it easy to discern facial expressions.

Different definitions

Depending on how a system is being marketed, there can be a blurry line between high-definition videoconferencing and outright telepresence. Some vendors call a single-screen, high-end videoconferencing system telepresence, says Roopam Jain, an analyst at Chicago consultancy Frost & Sullivan. Others define telepresence as a system with multiple screens and customized furniture.

Telepresence essentially uses the same basic technology as videoconferencing, says Ira Weinstein, an Atlanta-based senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research, LLC. "Anyone who says this is not at least in some way related to videoconferencing is selling you something." The difference, he says, is that the video in telepresence has been stepped up to a level of "experience," with greater attention to detail, quality, environment and usability.

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