Whitespace: Virtual meetings - even better than the real thing?

Issue 34: February 2008

Prince Charles made a speech with a difference last month at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. In a possible sign of things to come the Prince didn't address the Summit's audience in person, he delivered his speech as a life-sized 3D hologram.

Exactly when you'll be able to beam around the world in holographic form is difficult to say. Yet the ability to attend virtual meetings as a believable life-sized 2D image has already arrived. It's called telepresence, and it's predicted to be coming to an office near you.

The promise of telepresence

The big promise of telepresence is the ability to reduce the economic and environmental costs of travelling to and from off-site meetings. Market pioneer Cisco Systems says its TelePresence product achieves this by offering virtual meeting experiences that accommodate the natural flow of conversation.

The high-end TelePresence system features a distinctive crescent shaped table that faces three large high definition plasma screens. When activated, these screens reveal life-sized images of meeting attendees seated at the same eye level in an identical looking TelePresence room.

Sound is an all-important factor. Instead of the entire group's voices being emitted from one audio speaker, TelePresence designers have placed speakers under each person's image. This means any noise uttered by a meeting attendee at one TelePresence location is emitted from the same direction as their virtual self at another.

Suspend your belief

Just how much does it cost to create this illusion? In two words: a lot. You'll pay around US$300,000 per room for high-end systems like Cisco's TelePresence, plus running costs of up to US$18,000 a month. Less sophisticated virtual meeting systems start at US$60,000.

However, despite the hefty price tag there is evidence to suggest that purchasing a telepresence system can be money well spent. It's claimed companies can reduce their travel expenses by up to 20 per cent by using the system; for some multi-nationals that means a telepresence set-up could pay for itself within 12 months.

Beyond cutting travel expenses, telepresence developer Teliris claims virtual meetings can also speed up the innovation process. It says one of its clients, a pharmaceuticals company, managed to shave five months of the development period of a new drug as a result of telepresence-facilitated teamwork.

It's not just the developers who are singing the praises of virtual meetings. Researchers claim telepresence works because it fosters meeting environments in which people can make highly effective judgments based on non-verbal cues; an observation that's supported by research indicating that 55 per cent of human communication is relayed through body language and facial expressions.

Bringing remote workers into the picture

The early adopters of telepresence systems have been multinationals in the finance, pharmaceutical and high-end education sectors. However, if a widely predicted fall in the cost of telepresence products comes to fruition, virtual meetings may become an achievable option for businesses of all sizes.

Market research firm Frost and Sullivan speculate the telepresence market will grow by 850 per cent worldwide over the next five years. Many in the industry believe the remote work trend will drive this rapid growth as it's claimed telepresence has the potential to ease one of the main problems associated with working off-site, the feeling of isolation.

And at a time when our professional and personal lives are blurring like never before, its predicted many professionals will have a telepresence room at home that's used for both private and work related purposes. Perhaps changeable room backgrounds will be offered to create a feeling of difference when talking to a family member as opposed to a co-worker.

A greener bottom line

As is generally the case with emerging technologies, there is a lot of hype surrounding telepresence… hype that's quite similar to the fervour generated by the introduction of teleconferencing in the 1990s. The difference, according to telepresence advocates, is the ability of next generation systems to become invisible as a result of advances in picture and sound quality. Where teleconferencing was jerky and difficult to set up, telepresence is said to be seamlessly user friendly.

Technological advances aside, don't be surprised if environmental factors are the force that ultimately informs the growth of telepresence. Prince Charles claims he saved 15 tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere by choosing not flying from London to Abu Dhabi. If the corporate world decides to follow in the Prince's virtual footsteps by digitising across the world rather than flying, the sky really would be the limit for greenhouse gas savings.

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