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Is Telepresence a Good Alternative?

September 3, 2008 | Chris Payatagool
airplane-fall-apart.jpgBy Corbin Ball, CMP.
Monday, 1st September 2008    

These are tough times for the airline industry - Air fuel prices have doubled in the past year and several airlines have already folded and the surviving airlines are scrambling to cut back services in every conceivable way and to charge more for everything else.

Airfares are up 16% from last year. Extreme measures are being taken to shave cents.  American Airlines is charging for any checked luggage, which will load up the overhead bins. Northwest is charging for pillows and blankets and USAir will no longer provide free pretzels. United is laying off thousands, will ground most of their 737 aircraft and is folding their subsidiary Ted. Many airlines are severely cutting back on routes leading to more crowded, more expensive and significantly less convenient travel.

The airline industry was not designed around US$140+/barrel oil and what will likely come in this next year will make these past few years of long security lines, inconsistent TSA screening, and reduced service seem like the "good old days." The full impact of drastic fuel increases of the last few months has not fully played out. Things will likely get much worse for air travelers.

Even before these latest cuts, there have already been signs that passengers are starting to revolt. The Travel Institute of America estimates that there were 41 million fewer flights (including 12 million business trips) this past year.  In a survey conducted in May 2008, forty-eight percent of frequent flyers surveyed are "dissatisfied" and 51% feel their time "is not respected in the air-travel process."

The impact on meetings:

On the plus side: some form, face-to-face meetings will remain viable:

    * The relationship-building and networking occurring at events is difficult to replicate online (at least with the current level of technology).

    * There are efficiencies of scale at tradeshows and events - it is possible to make many contacts whose business benefits will continue to outweigh substantial travel cost and hassle for many.

    * A primary revenue source for most associations is events and tradeshows.  The attendee numbers may go down, but events will stay as long as the association is operating.

    * There is an isolation factor - the more we work in front of computer screens and/or telecommute for small offices, the more we will desire human contact.

On the down-side: it is likely that, as the air transport system continues to degrade and get more costly, that we will hit a tipping point for many. In addition, there are environmental concerns -- according to the David Suzuki Foundation, air travel currently accounts for four to nine percent of the total climate change impact of human activity.  Former meeting attendees will likely look for alternatives and face-to-face meetings attendance will drop.

Telepresence meeting solutions:

Despite these travel hassles, the need to get together for education and business remains. Older video conference systems have been promoted for years as a means to reduce travel costs. However, technical limitations of poor sound, poor picture quality, reliability, ease of use and cost have inhibited adoption.  Additionally, the lack of eye-to-eye contact reduced the connection -- standard video conference systems were much more like watching each other on television - very much unlike a face-to-face meeting.

This is all changing. Advances in video conference systems, collectively called telepresence, work to make this experience as much like a face-to-face meeting as possible. Participants are projected in full size, at eye-level, in high definition, with excellent sound quality and with seamless wide screen displays that closely simulate the feeling as if they were actually sitting across the table from each other.  Telepresence is to standard video conferencing as watching a HD home-theater with surround sound compared to watching TV on a low definition small set.

There are many recent developments in this regard, with some of the largest technology companies throwing their weight behind it:

* HP ( ) and Cisco ( ) are developing telepresence systems using allowing people to sit across a virtual table from each other, in full size, high-definition, eye-to-eye contact.

* Polycom is providing their RPX HD 400 telepresence system with up to 16 feet (4 meters) wide video screen immersing an audience in another room. ( ).
# Musion ( ) has worked with Cisco to project speakers on stage ( ) at least making it easier for speakers to get to face-to-face meetings.

# Marriott has joined forces with HP to revive their public access video conference suites using HD telepresence systems.

# LifeSize Communications ( ) provides basic HD video conference systems starting at relatively low price points (about US$5,000.)

# Polycom also has some excellent short video of their Video Everywhere systems at  

So, as the airlines and society deal with paradigm-changing rises in fuel costs, meeting professionals and attendees will seek alternatives to bringing people together. These telepresence options may be a partial solution.

Corbin Ball, CMP, CSP is a professional speaker and consultant focusing on meetings technology. With 20 years of experience running international citywide technology meetings, he now helps clients worldwide use technology to save time and improve productivity He can be contacted at his extensive web site:


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