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Keeping the Personal Touch without Getting on a Plane

Companies are turning to high-end communication systems to reduce their carbon footprints and travel expenses.

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.

Communicating from afar: Telepresence rooms, such as this one from Cisco, let remote users talk to each other as if they were in the same room.

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.

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.

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