Face to (Virtual) Face

Telepresence technology can slash travel costs -- if you can afford it, and if it's really used.

Insurance giant MetLife Inc. is trying to reduce the amount of time employees spend in airports -- not only to save on travel costs, but also to improve employees' quality of life by keeping them home as much as possible. That's why the company has eagerly embraced telepresence technology.

Telepresence systems include high-end, high-definition video and audio communications for meetings -- Forrester Research Inc. calls telepresence "the Cadillac of videoconferencing." The goal is to make everyone involved in the meetings feel as if they're actually in the room with the other attendees, regardless of where they're physically situated.

Toward that end, MetLife is using Cisco Systems Inc.'s TelePresence technology in three conference rooms, in Chicago, New York and Somerset, N.J., and it plans to install similar systems in additional offices nationally and internationally this year.

"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 at MetLife. He regularly uses telepresence to communicate with his direct reports in Chicago and Somerset, and the clarity is so good that "everyone jokes that they can reach a Coke across the table" from one city to another, he says with a laugh.

MetLife also sees telepresence as a way to help the company meet its 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 exact savings, but Nugent estimates that the systems will yield double-digit ROI in reduced travel costs alone.

Different Definitions

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

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