What’s so special about telepresence?

We have been conditioned over the years to crave novelty. We like our new
cars, televisions, computers and all the rest because they look prettier and
perform better than their predecessors. We like to reward ourselves, and that
usually means sticking our hands in our pockets.

With environmental issues coming to the fore, companies are getting cuter
about the way they flog stuff. They are finding ways of wrapping green into
their marketing messages. The car industry is a great example. It sells new
hybrid cars with an embedded carbon footprint estimated at between 3,000kg and
5,000kg. These vehicles still pump out greenhouse gases. If you have an old car
and trade up to a posher hybrid then you’d need to base your environmental
‘good’ on the difference between the current emissions and those of the new car.
If you’ve already cut your annual mileage, the benefit to the planet could take
years to materialise.

Closer to home, we have the telepresence industry. It, too, promises
planetary gains as long as you buy new stuff from the vendors. But in monetary
and greenhouse gas terms, it’s peanuts compared to the savings. The
justifications are based on the flights you haven’t taken and hotels you haven’t
stayed in. It’s a good line and one that’s difficult to argue with.

The vendors sit you down and speak of realism, eye contact, reliability and
so on. You are sucked into wanting a perfect digital replica of real life. But
do you actually need it? Could these expensive boardroom-style systems just be
the equivalent of a top-end hybrid car that can pump out much more carbon than
the old car that you don’t really need to change?

With cars and telepresence systems alike, we have to ask ourselves what we
are really after. It might be to get from A to B quickly and in comfort. Or it
might be to communicate effectively over distance and share information. If
that’s really what’s needed, then a range of lower cost and environmentally
friendlier alternatives swings into view.

While a life size realistic image of the person you’re talking to is
impressive and eye contact is a nice bonus, is it really necessary? Telepresence
systems have substantial running costs, not least because of the communications
services that underpin the technology.

Most of us have broadband internet connections these days and we all have
telephones. Plenty of low-cost desktop meeting systems are out there and they
get the job done with the bonus that you can participate from anywhere.

My own organisation is quite used to taking high-level intercontinental
briefings with important people without seeing them. It’s enough to hear their
voices and see their slide decks or shared desktops. We can be in our pyjamas
(if working from home!) and can type notes in real-time, neither of which would
go down very well in a telepresence meeting.

Desktop meeting systems are very good for exchanging large amounts of
information – visual and spoken – quickly and effectively. Most have a camera
option so you can see each other if you really want to. Watching body language
is sometimes useful but eye contact isn’t needed for that.

Don’t get me wrong. Eye contact is very nice. I have participated in several
full-blown telepresence sessions and, at the end, have felt like getting up and
shaking the other participants’ hands. But, really, it made no difference to the
information exchange. The vendors’ necessity strikes me more as a luxury.

The comparisons the telepresence vendors make between their costs and
travel/hotels are a little disingenuous. You could make the same arguments for
desktop systems and come out with better numbers. And you wouldn’t have to go to
a special room, cutting the environmental cost still further.

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