Business Travel Goes Virtual
By Richard Grigonis
Telepresence is the ultimate teleconferencing experience. Indeed, for decades the idea was relegated to science fiction, having been described in Isaac Asimov's 1956 novel The Naked Sun, though the term itself was not coined until 1980 by MIT professor Marvin Minsky. Today, thanks to broadband communications, streaming high-definition video, collaborative "touchtables," high-fidelity multichannel sound and large multiscreen displays, growing numbers of business executives are beginning to grasp the benefits of purchasing telepresence systems — slashing travel expenses, saving time, avoiding airport hassles, quickening decision making, shrinking the company carbon footprint and, above all, boosting productivity.
In this era of globalization, the need to easily communicate and collaborate among geographically dispersed individuals and groups of people has become a significant concern. Corporate operations, R&D and sales and marketing groups, once situated in the same building, city or state, may now be scattered around the country or even around the world, thus challenging the abilities of the modern mobile workforce. The demand for faster and more efficient business processes in today's economically stressed and extremely competitive environment lays bare the impracticality of treating the overworked airlines as a glorified bus service. Employee collaboration based on the very "ungreen" practice of business travel in a dynamic, highly distributed working environment is an expensive waste of time and leads to workflow bottlenecks.
Fortunately, the same ongoing globalization process that created this problem has also spurred the development and construction of its solution: a vast worldwide telecommunications network infrastructure including the Internet, based on an expanding mesh of fiber-optic cable, broadband wireless, communications satellites and copper landlines. This serves as the high-bandwidth conduit needed for successful telepresence, the highest-quality — and feature-rich — form of teleconferencing, which makes "business travel without the travel" possible.
Both manufacturers and industry pundits debate the differences between highdefinition (HD) videoconferencing and telepresence. In a genuine telepresence system, a user sits in an immersive environment that provides the best possible illusion of participating in a conference room discussion. In a comfortable, stylish and acoustically optimized room — often a room-within-a-room of modularized construction so that it can be disassembled and moved when necessary — several large HD screens of 720 or 1,080 lines of resolution are positioned in a panoramic arc across a conference table from the in-room users. People seated at a similar installation at the other end of the call appear to be life-size and present in the room, sitting across the conference table. Unobtrusive or completely hidden cameras, multiple microphones and speakers, along with carefully designed high-fidelity, spatial audio techniques, complete the effect.
With most systems, even a remote odd person out, having no access to a telepresence room, can participate in a conference via audio only, sometimes from a laptop or Webcam, but more likely from a smaller single-screen desktop "executive model," such as the Teliris Personal Telepresence™ solution for private offices, which can double as a secondary computer monitor for local presentations.
Today, most vendors' top-of-the-line virtual conference room environments typically cost between $200,000 and $500,000 for each office location, along with thousands of dollars a month in broadband connect charges — not a casual commitment by any means.
Nevertheless, those who experience telepresence firsthand wax enthusiastic over its abilities and can demonstrate how the technology is actually less expensive and saves time when compared with traditional business travel. The immersive collaboration aspects of telepresence and its ability to instantly eliminate the distance between individuals can enhance and accelerate business processes. Telepresence may never completely eliminate travel to essential face-to-face meetings, but its overall effect on increasing employee productivity and availability has proven time and again to be substantial.
As Phil Marie, senior vice president, NASDAQ OMX, illustrates, "The NASDAQ OMX Group initially invested in the Polycom RPX telepresence solution to help with the merger of the OMX Nordic Stock Exchange in Sweden. NASDAQ needed a boardroom-level solution that would help accelerate the acquisition process and ensure a smooth transition without the time and expense of transporting legions of employees across continents. Telepresence provided a cost-effective way to enable teams in the U.S. and Sweden to communicate and collaborate across continents in real time as effectively as if they were in the same room. Telepresence is now used for many other applications to help improve communication among geographically dispersed teams, accelerate decision making and cut back on the cost and carbon emissions associated with travel."
The immersive collaboration aspects of telepresence and its ability to instantly eliminate the distance between individuals can enhance and accelerate business processes.
CoStar Group, a commercial real estate information provider, also made a significant investment in a Polycom system to connect 1,300 CoStar workers in the U.S. and abroad. It carefully analyzed the company's situation and dealt with bandwidth allocation, network "traffic shaping" and end-user training to keep users satisfied and using the system. According to Andrew Florance, CoStar's founder, president and chief executive officer, "When we first started with videoconferencing a few years ago, we simply wanted a way to reduce travel costs for our sales team. Now we have developers and researchers on both coasts who use our videoconferencing rooms eight hours a day." Florance believes that video has helped CoStar cut more than $1 million in travel costs.
Bob Hagerty, chief executive officer of Polycom, the industry leader that has shipped over 600,000 videoconferencing systems and 30,000 telepresence systems as of Q3 2008, says, "Even in the slowing economy, organizations are embracing visual communications because it can help them slash travel costs without sacrificing effectiveness. We find that customers often justify the initial investment in telepresence based on cutting travel, but soon realize more significant ROI benefits around improved productivity and collaboration, and accelerated decision making and execution."
Teliris Telepresence is the world's most natural, immersive virtual meeting environment combining an intimate experience with innovative collaboration tools that allow effective interaction over distance. All solutions are packaged with Teliris’ managed service including a 99%+ reliability guarantee.
Teliris Telepresence is the only solution offering true immersive collaboration, including the first multi-touch surface computing environment for virtual meetings that takes telepresence beyond just audio and video.
Teliris has leveraged its nine years of telepresence experience to develop Teliris Interoperability solutions that allow customers to protect investments by allowing Teliris Telepresence to seamlessly connect with existing third-party telepresence and traditional videoconferencing environments.
Teliris Telepresence allows companies to radically reduce travel costs, transform business cultures, implement carbon footprint reductions, secure business continuity plans, ensure healthy employee work/life balance and collaborate between offices more often and more effectively.
For opinions, commentary and the latest cutting-edge telepresence innovations, visit Teliris CEO Marc Trachtenberg's blog at www.discovertelepresence.com.
Videoconferencing and Unified Communications
One can argue that telepresence is whatever the best videoconferencing technology happens to be at the moment, plus the immersive environmental factors. Moreover, just as it is difficult to distinguish high-end videoconferencing from genuine telepresence, soon it will become difficult to separate either one from the broader conceptual business communications framework of unified communications (UC), which strives to integrate and synergize all forms of messaging, conferencing, video and the Internet. Many telepresence systems are now capable of providing more-expansive Web conferencing and collaboration functions and are extending the telepresence experience into auxiliary devices.
Polycom's RealPresence™ Experience High Definition (RPX™ HD) system, for example, offers integrated 15-inch desktop content displays with laptop connections that can be placed within arm’s reach of participants. These can be used for sharing presentations during the conference — complete with audio and video clips if necessary — just as if everyone were viewing a laptop screen in a conventional meeting. (Some competing systems require users to look up or down at subordinate presentation screens on the other side of the room.)
Teliris, a provider of high-end immersive telepresence solutions, recently introduced the first "multi-touch surface computing" solution for telepresence. Its Teliris InterACT TouchTable™ and Teliris InterACT TouchWall™ enable all kinds of content, including documents, videos, presentations and CAD renderings, to be displayed at 1080p (progressive scan) resolution, shared and modified by participants situated in any number of locations. Content sharing, duplication, printing, USB thumb drives and e-mail are supported. The interface consists simply of natural, intuitive hand gestures, thanks to special gesture-recognition software formulated by Teliris to support multitouch, multi-participant interactions without the need for user training.
The Teliris InterACT TouchTable integrates into Teliris Telepresence conference tables. Larger tables can be created by placing multiple two-person segments together. The Teliris InterACT TouchWall is an impressive 110-inch diagonal vertical multitouch segment wall. As with the Teliris InterACT TouchTable, additional segments can be assembled to form an even larger surface.
To complete the immersive telepresence experience, the Teliris InterACT Easel™ is the telepresence version of a virtual white-board flip chart. With it, any number of users anywhere can create, share and annotate content in real time.
Managed and Customized Options
Organizations looking to adopt telepresence can generally get help from the professional services divisions of vendors and service providers. For example, recognizing that many companies would prefer to free up capital and IT staff support time by adopting a fully managed services, telepresence solution, AT&T has combined Cisco's TelePresence know-how with its own global IP networking and VPN services to offer the AT&T Telepresence Solution, the industry’s first fully managed intercompany Cisco telepresence solution. Customers can choose solutions based on the Cisco TelePresence System 3200 (three screens), Cisco TelePresence System 3000 (three screens), Cisco TelePresence System 1000 (one screen) and Cisco TelePresence System 500 (one screen) endpoints. The AT&T Telepresence Solution streamlines the scheduling of telepresence calls and supports popular calendaring applications such as Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes. And when using the AT&T Business Exchange, a single telepresence call can encompass up to eight intercompany locations.
AT&T's package includes AT&T-owned Cisco equipment, along with installation, monitoring, platform management, network provisioning, help desk support and ongoing maintenance.
Spending Money to Save Money
The novelty of placing and receiving "video calls" by hobbyists in the 1990s has now given way to telepresence, the convergence of today's most sophisticated video and other teleconferencing technologies. Although many case studies and ROI numbers exist to support its use, the final decision to adopt any new technology is, as always, a matter of corporate culture.