Saturday, August 25, 2007

Nothing like the real thing?

Business use of teleconferencing surged after September 11, 2001. The trend will surely continue, boosted by continuing technological improvements and refinements. The Economist of August 25, 2007, includes "Behold, telepresence ... Far away yet strangely personal ..." The link includes a photo of the very cool "telepresence" technology. At first glance, you cannot tell that all the players are not in the room.

How good a substitute is it for the real thing? The market (and time) will tell. My guess is that this is not promising for airline, hotel or car rental company stocks. Telecom will innovate faster than air travel. The latter is more beholden to politicians and regulators.
The result is something called “telepresence”, which HP and
other technology firms are just beginning to sell. It is basically a spruced-up
version of videoconferencing, but its creators insist that the technology is so
improved as to be unrecognisable. Users still communicate via live audio and
video feeds, but the speed and quality of transmission have increased, and the
screens have grown and multiplied, in order to create the illusion that the two
parties to a conversation are not continents apart but at opposite ends of the
same table (as in the picture above). The aim, telepresence's boosters say, is
to get participants in such meetings to forget, or at least stop caring, that
they are not in the same room.

Videoconferencing was supposed to put an end to corporate
travel. But positioning people in front of a camera, fiddling endlessly with
controls and then either giving up or proceeding to stare at a tiny picture of a
blurry face often seems less satisfactory than the humble telephone. Such
“conversations” are often a sequence of time-delayed interruptions and missed
social signals. Just as the technologies that were supposed to deliver “the
paperless office” actually deluged it in print-outs, videoconferencing sometimes
works so badly that it leaves users feeling alienated, and so keener to meet
face-to-face than they had been in the first place, say Andrew Davis and Ira
Weinstein at Wainhouse Research, a consultancy.

Correcting these flaws has been difficult. Designers want
people in telepresence meetings to appear life-sized, and the tables and rooms
at the two ends to blend together seamlessly. (Rooms, furniture and even
wallpaper are often identical, to aid the illusion.) People must also feel that
they are making eye contact, which involves multiple cameras and enormous
computing power. The delays in sight and sound must be negligible (ie, below 250
milliseconds, the threshold at which the human brain starts to notice), so that
people can interrupt each other naturally. Sound must be perceived to come from
the direction of the person speaking. And getting things started must be
simple—ideally involving a single button or none at all.
Several firms have
started selling such systems over the past 18 months. HP was the first big
vendor, followed by Cisco, which makes many of the innards of the internet. The
two leaders in old-fashioned videoconferencing, Polycom and Tandberg, are
switching to telepresence. Smaller firms, such as Teliris and Telanetix, are
also getting in on the act.

HP charges $350,000 for every room it kits out for
telepresence and, in America, a further $18,000 a month for service. Cisco
charges up to $299,000 per room. Dominic Dodd, of Frost & Sullivan, a
research firm, says that buyers of such systems find that despite their high
cost they quickly pay for themselves by keeping travel bills down. Cisco claims
that it has cut its own spending on travel by a fifth this year, and that the
100-odd telepresence rooms at its own offices around the world are almost
constantly in use.

In addition to saving money, Cisco argues that telepresence
saves time. The firm recently completed a takeover in eight days (as opposed to
the usual weeks or months) by putting the lawyers in telepresence rooms instead
of on aeroplanes. Lee Scott, the boss of Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer,
is said to see great scope for improving his supply chain.