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Even Better Than the Real Thing

Advances in videoconferencing technology may finally be able to spare you from taking that flight.

Over the past two decades, videoconferencing has earned a bad reputation in the business world. Despite claims of new-and-improved technology from vendors, the act of conferencing via video hook-up has left a lot to be desired. Indeed, participating in a videoconference with the team in Tokyo is often a little like waking up in Son of Godzilla. The color isn’t right, motion appears robotic, and speech is unrelated to the actual flapping of lips.

Not surprisingly, more than a few corporate executives have been put off by the experience. Ken Jacobs, deputy chairman and head of Lazard in North America, is not a big fan. “[Older] videoconferencing systems are not effective, because they’re slow and jerky,” Jacobs says. “It makes interactive dialogue next to impossible.”

This appears be changing. Recent advances in Internet telephony, including increases in network bandwidth, have greatly improved virtual conferencing. The latest incarnation of the service, known as telepresence, comes much closer to replicating the real thing. Unlike earlier approaches, telepresence uses fiber-optic networks, dramatically speeding up data-transfer rates.

What’s more, the conference rooms operate more like television studios, with state-of-the-art cameras; high-definition, wide-angle viewing screens; and advanced networking equipment. “These telepresence solutions are about bonding, teaming, and meeting face-to-face without getting on a plane,” says Ira Weinstein, an Atlanta-based senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research LLC. “You gain convenience without losing the human experience.”

Lazard built a telepresence studio in its New York office seven years ago. Jacobs says the conference room is now booked nearly 100 percent of the time. The firm’s management has been so impressed by the product that it has since added telepresence studios in offices in Italy, Chicago, and San Francisco. Says Jacobs: “We recouped our investment several times. We traveled less for internal meetings and still improved our internal communications.”

You Are There

Currently, several vendors market telepresence products (see “Room with a View” at the end of this article). The list includes tech heavyweights Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems, which is attempting to leverage its dominance in routers and switchers to carve out a niche in telepresence. Howard Lichtman, president and founder of The Human Productivity Lab, an independent consultancy focused on the telepresence industry, reckons that about 50 corporate customers have gone in for the technology so far. Those businesses have deployed 300 or so group telepresence systems globally (as opposed to 500,000 traditional IP videoconferencing systems in use right now). Small numbers, admittedly, but Lichtman predicts that as many as 25,000 telepresence studios could be built in the next decade.

Step into a telepresence studio and you may conclude that there is indeed hope for videoconferencing. A typical telepresence conference room contains a long table and several very large, high-definition flat-screen displays. Those wide screens add peripheral vision to the experience — important in creating a sense that distant colleagues are actually sitting across the table. “Your brain sees them as being in the same room,” explains Weinstein. “All of this is a way of tricking your mind into thinking you’re actually at an in-person meeting.”

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