Peter Graf, the chief sustainability officer at software provider SAP, was sitting at an oval wooden table one day, finishing a meeting with a colleague, when he found he needed a pen to complete some paperwork. He started to ask whether he could borrow one, but then he stopped himself. His colleague—and the pen—were in fact 10,000 kilometers away.
Graf was sitting in a high-tech room, where three large high-definition screens, a sound system, cameras, and even matching lighting all add up to give the impression of sitting in the same room as remote users. Participants at one location sit at half of a meeting table; an identical, matching half appears in a similar room that might be across the globe. When a user appears on the screen, it looks as if everyone is sitting at the same table. The sound system can even make different speakers’ voices come from different directions to better replicate what happens when everyone actually is in the same room. “It’s a very different level of conversation,” Graf says. “You can make eye contact.”
Videoconferencing has been around for a long time, but factors such as new broadband capabilities and high-definition video processing are turning it into something more powerful and giving it a new name: telepresence. Because high-end telepresence systems better simulate the nuances of in-person contact, they are increasingly being used to replace costly and time-consuming meetings. That cuts down on a company’s carbon footprint, saves money, and reduces stress related to travel. And for a company like SAP, which has offices all over the world, the savings can be huge.
Most of SAP’s sustainability council meetings are now held this way, saving money for the company and saving time for directors and executives. “Our strategy is to analyze our costs and carbon emissions caused by business travel and use the telepresence systems in those areas where a lot of face-to-face conversations are needed,” says Graf. SAP has more than 500 videoconferencing systems and 29 of the newer telepresence rooms, which are supplied by Cisco Systems. And it plans to add 15 of the Cisco rooms by the end of the year. It costs $300,000 to install each of the most advanced rooms, but the average intercontinental business trip runs “$10,000, at least,” Graf says. “The system pays for itself in a year.”
It also improves employees’ work-life balance, SAP found. Graf used to travel from Palo Alto, California, to corporate headquarters in Germany around 10 times a year, but now he makes the trip just three to five times a year. “I would much rather come in to the office at 3 a.m. for a telepresence session, compared to traveling a day to have a one-hour meeting and traveling a day back home,” he says. He will still travel for networking, or to build “team spirit.” But the telepresence rooms feel so realistic, he says, that some SAP teams have celebrated the completion of a project in a meeting where people drank “champagne on one end and coffee on the other,” depending on what time it was where they were.
Cisco has sold more than 400,000 systems to 2,000 customers, including the Norwegian energy company Statoil, the telecommunications provider Vodafone, and the global bank HSBC. Autodesk, a software company that makes 3-D design programs, uses 20 Cisco telepresence rooms in 20 cities, in conjunction with other teleconferencing technologies. Autodesk’s director of sustainability, Lynelle Cameron, says its initial goal was to reduce travel internally, but it also uses the technology to meet with customers and partners, who do their part in an Autodesk telepresence room near them. Cisco has also partnered with Marriott hotels to create “public” telepresence rooms, which will enable companies like Autodesk to invite customers and traveling employees to telepresence meetings in many more cities.