Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

It's still not cheap, but telepresence technology takes videoconferencing a giant step forward. And did we mention that it's really cool?

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Food ingredient giant Tate & Lyle has Teliris VirtuaLive rooms installed in its London and Decatur, Ill., headquarters. CEO Iain Ferguson says that it doesn't take much to justify the cost. "A trip to Decatur costs us about $25,000 and three days of executive time," he says, and suggests that anyone can do the math from there.

According to Jim Kittridge, a Wachovia senior vice president and telepresence product manager, his company picked the locations for its first two Cisco TelePresence installations by looking at travel patterns showing there were about 15 trips a day between the company's offices in Charlotte, N.C., and Richmond, Va.

"The system is meeting the four objectives we had for it," says Kittridge, "which are to reduce expenses, increase collaboration among teams in different locations, increase employee engagement by keeping them off of planes and fulfill Wachovia's corporate objective of reducing its environmental impact."

"Think of it as a nice substitute for a corporate jet," says IDC analyst Nora Freedman. That comment is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Forrester's Dewing thinks it is realistic. "Figure that at Cisco, they've cut their corporate travel budget by 6% by using their own TelePresence systems internally," says Dewing, who is familiar with Cisco's internal usage pattern. "I don't know the exact number, but that's a pretty big hit."

Cisco's Hsieh puts another twist into the worth of the systems when he talks about his company's internal use of its 100 telepresence-equipped conference rooms. "At first, they were about 60% customer-facing meetings," he says, "but now, only about 30% of the meetings are customer-facing because we've changed how collaboration is done at Cisco."

Hsieh says that Cisco's rooms are used an average of about five hours per day. "That's way more than traditional videoconferencing systems get used," says Dewing.

Kittridge concurs, saying that utilization of Wachovia's telepresence-equipped rooms is 45% after just 60 days of operation, which is above the company target and well above Wachovia's previous videoconferencing experience. "We have 100 rooms equipped with traditional videoconferencing, and utilization has never reached 20%," he says.

Kittridge continues, "People are able to hold more meetings because they don't have the hassle of travel, and ad hoc meetings now happen that could never have happened if participants had to travel." Kittridge also mentioned a trainer in the company's HR department. "She is currently pregnant," he says, "and telepresence allows her to do her job without travel."

Ferguson added another dimension to the conversation when he related that one of the first things Tate & Lyle did with its telepresence system was do bring all the administrative assistants from each location into the rooms for a meet-and-greet session. "It changed the entire dynamic of their working together because they now had a better idea of who each other was," he says.

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The telepresence experience

I'm usually skeptical of new products, especially when one is described as "breakthrough" technology. Most never make it past the press release, and so many that do are really just decent products doing what they were designed to do. So, given the lousy track record of video- and Web-based conferencing and collaboration technologies, I was very skeptical when a Teliris representative invited me to try out the company's "breakthrough" telepresence-based VirtuaLive system.

"It's different," she promised, and she was right. From the moment I walked in the room and saw how VirtuaLive was set up, I was impressed by the quality of the images and sound, but mostly by the realism that the system brought to the meeting. I was in San Francisco looking straight into the eyes of people in New York, and it felt like they were just across the table. They were the right size to be seated across that table, their voices seemed to come directly from their mouths and they sounded completely natural, not at all artificial in the manner of so many remote sound systems.

My good impressions were firmed up when I got a look at Cisco's TelePresence system at the company's headquarters in San Jose. The system's modular configuration is quite functional and makes a virtual oval conference room table come alive. The Cisco system's gaze angle is not quite as natural as the Teliris one because the focus of the system is on the person sitting in the center, but otherwise, it's just as realistic as Teliris VirtuaLive.

I later joined a conference using the Teliris WebConnect system from my home office. The required telephone hookup was as awkward as in any other Web-based system, but the multiscreen image successfully mimicked the VirtuaLive conference room setup, with motion on the screens that was very nearly as smooth -- the difference is that you're looking at a much smaller format.

Marc Trachtenberg bristles when anyone classifies VirtuaLive or any telepresence system as videoconferencing because he doesn't want it to be associated with such a flawed technology. But videoconferencing-based collaboration is what telepresence is all about, and it's awfully good at it.

-- John Dickinson  

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