[By Duncan McLeod]
Why do people fly all over the world? In many cases it’s simply not necessary. And with interesting new videoconferencing technologies being developed, long-haul travel may eventually become the exception in business rather than the rule.
It always amazes me how journalist colleagues of mine fly overseas at the drop of a hat to attend product launches and press conferences.
The thought of flying to the other side of the planet, cramped into baggage class, just to spend two days in a darkened conference centre, is usually too much for me to bear.
Needless to say, my passport isn’t filling up with visas and airport stamps.
I have great admiration for people who can deal with punishing travel schedules. I’m always amazed to hear the amount of flying time some senior executives put in.
And that’s without even considering all the problems associated with foreign travel, such as volcano ash clouds and security delays.
I know of several multinational companies that fly their marketing staff around the world several times a year just so they can meet around a boardroom table and discuss strategy. I’m convinced these trips, for the most part, are not necessary.
What triggered my thinking about this was a demonstration last week by US networking company Cisco of its new TelePresence videoconferencing solution. Developed using high-definition cameras and large-panel screens, the TelePresence product mimics a boardroom table. Participants, who can be on opposite sides of the world, interact with one another as if they’re in the same room. The system, which requires a high-speed Internet connection (at least 9Mbit/s for a three-screen TelePresence solution), is an incredible sight to behold.
Cisco has provided the technology to US television sports network ESPN to assist it in its live coverage of the 2010 soccer World Cup. The company has installed two TelePresence systems — at a cost of about US$80 000 each — outside soccer stadiums in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. It will use these to interview coaches, players and analysts without the need to send an expensive outdoor broadcasting van to the stadium.
During Cisco’s demonstration to journalists last week, it connected eight cities — Johannesburg, Toronto, New York, San Francisco, London, Warsaw, Kiev and São Paulo — for an interactive discussion. Unlike older videoconferencing systems, it really felt as if we were all in the same room. I almost felt that I could hand a piece of paper through the screen to one of the other participants.
Cisco’s solution is certainly expensive. But prices will come down. And I imagine systems like these will quickly pay for themselves in airfare savings and productivity gains.
South Africans should be quicker to embrace the technology, given that most international flights are long-haul in nature. In Europe, people don’t think twice about hopping on a flight, since other European destinations are never more than a couple of hours away. In SA, videoconferencing makes real sense.
And, as impressive as Cisco’s system is, it’s just the start. Screen technology — already impressive — will improve and telecommunications networks will get faster, making the experience more and more engaging. In a few decades, realistic holographic projections will truly make it feel like you are in the same room, even if you’re meeting someone who is 12 time zones away.
People will still travel internationally for leisure, and business people will still sometimes feel the need to meet in person, but for routine meetings, at least, getting onto a long-haul flight is starting to make less sense. The financial savings alone will spur the technology’s adoption.
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