In addition to 20 telepresence rooms from Cisco, Autodesk has 50 “Round Table” rooms from Microsoft, where a camera in the center of a table automatically turns to and zooms in on the person who is speaking, and Microsoft’s desktop “Communicator,” which lets a user click on an icon to start a video call with a colleague. Cameron has been training employees on which systems should be used for which meetings: Communicator is ideal for one-on-one talks, Round Tables are handy when a group of people in a room want input from two or three remote participants, and telepresence is ideal for situations like her staff meeting, where people in four different locations need to talk. She has noticed that her telepresence meetings often end faster than meetings in which people call in, since people in a telepresence session “can’t multitask as they would on a phone,” she says. “I get people’s full attention.”
Cameron still travels internationally to meet people face to face at the beginning of a project and at bigger networking events, where “a lot happens in corridor conversations.” That’s something telepresence can’t account for. Another downside of skipping travel, says Peter Graf, is that participants who aren’t in the same time zone can be out of sync: “Someone can be tired on the other side.” He adds that it may also mean a lot of calls in the morning or late in the evening. Even so, he says, the net result is less wear and tear on employees.
A large company like Microsoft spends around $700 million a year for approximately a thousand business trips a day, so any significant reduction in travel turns into major cost savings and reductions in carbon emissions. Eric Bailey, Microsoft’s senior travel manager, says the company turned to HP’s Halo telepresence rooms in an effort to replace 5 percent of trips to each city that has a telepresence room by the end of this year. “Sitting in airplanes or security lines is not the most efficient use of our employees’ time,” he says. The 10 telepresence rooms Microsoft installed last year are primarily for internal use, but some Microsoft executives are using them with large customers—“not to introduce themselves or do the deal,” he says, but to maintain better relationships than they could over the phone.
Most customers who have bought telepresence systems from Cisco initially aimed to reduce travel costs, but “the more advanced customers are transforming their business models around it,” says the vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Telepresence Business Unit, Odd Johnny Winge. Some banks, for example, are equipping branches with telepresence so that a single expert can deal with customers in many locations. Other companies have begun to deliver education and health care through the telepresence rooms. “People don’t understand the power of [telepresence],” Winge says. “We’ve only scratched the surface.”
Kristina Grifantini is assistant editor at Technology Review.