The march toward telepresence

For years I’ve been saying that available levels of information technology were perfectly adequate for enabling many, if not most, forms of telework.The traditional excuse that “we simply don’t have technology that’s powerful enough to allow telework” was, and is, a red herring for all sorts of useful telework cases. Foremost among the excuses was that telework, via videoconferencing, was too expensive, particularly where face-to-face interaction was felt to be necessary. I used to agree that videoconferencing was too expensive and that therefore some few types of tele-interchange were not practical. After all, high quality videoconferencing setups in the 80s and 90s used to start at $20,000 per seat and go up from there.
Well, no more.

A couple of years ago I bought an Intel ProShare desktop videoconferencing system, installed an ISDN line (all for under $2,000), and started to use them for giving talks and presentations to distant audiences. Before then I had a regular commute to Europe and other spots around the world for roughly the same purpose–but at much higher cost both in time and funds. With videoconferencing I could avoid jet lag and free up at least three days (two for travel, one for decompression) for each speech. Admittedly, my image as delivered to that distant location wasn’t broadcast quality but the sound was good. My first non-trip, in fact the first few hours of the trip otherwise made, paid for the conferencing system.

Of course, it wasn’t the same as being there. The before- and after-speech conversations with the attendees were missing. but it was much, much better than if I hadn’t been able to “be there” at all.

Now comes an article in the September 28th Wall Street Journal, titled Better Virtual Meetings. You can now use high-end videoconferencing systems “that users say are almost like being there.” And it will only cost half a megabuck per location plus $18,000 per month for high speed phone lines. So telepresence apparently is now no big deal–if you’re Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. Actually, that level of system is actually a significant improvement and cost reduction from the situation a decade ago but it is still pricey.

Now the ability to teleconference on a one-to-one basis is built in Apple PowerBooks. For many other PCs with broadband access it is a small investment to add such capability. So now even videoconferencing for regular employees may not be out of the question.

Meanwhile, I may opt for videoconferencing via cable since the local phone companies seem to be more interested in legislation than service. My DSL line, 18,000+ feet from the switch, has a peak capacity of 144kbps while the cable promises 700+Mbps for a lower price. We’ll see.

Stay tuned.

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