Business travel sucks. It sucks energy, it sucks time, and mostly it just sucks. We're stuck with it because nothing beats a physical presence.
Telepresence, though, comes close. That's why increasingly global companies -- and also environmentalists -- are hopping aboard.
Telepresence is like video-conferencing on steroids. Specially modified conference rooms equipped with high-quality audio, video and networking technology become meeting places for teams divided between Boston and Bangalore.
The leap in quality from standard videoconferencing is hard to convey and needs to be experienced, but to get an idea, check out a plug for a Cisco telepresence system on the TV show "24".
Unfortunately TV-land is the closest you're likely get to telepresence unless your company buys a system, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars -- main telepresence vendors include Teliris, Hewlett-Packard, Tandberg, Cisco and Polycom.
That kind of price only makes economic sense if you're a large corporation already losing significant productivity and money to business flights. But if you are such a company, telepresence can be a beautiful thing.
Quality varies, of course, but at its best telepresence creates an illusion of sitting across the same table that is surprisingly effective -- the positioning of furniture and even the wall color are carefully selected.
Participants forget about the technology -- which they generally don't have to muck with at all -- and become immersed in meetings that can go on for hours. Body language is easily read and even eye contact can be maintained, though on some systems better than others.
This helps explain why telepresence systems get significantly more usage than videoconferencing ones. Typical usage rates for the former are 77.4 hours per month, compared to 10 hours for the latter, according to Wainhouse Research, which specializes in videoconferencing and unified communications market research.
And it's mid-level executives, not just VIPs, who regularly use the systems. It's not uncommon for a company to have dozens of telepresence suites being used 20 to 25 hours per week.
That means less flying around -- good for the environment -- but companies are buying the systems primarily for a different reason: productivity gains.
"They are speeding time to market for new products because design and marketing teams scattered across the globe can work together more easily and more frequently," notes David Molony, a principal analyst with consulting and research firm Ovum.
Telepresence is also, he adds, being used as a sales tool for high-level contract meetings.
Says Molony: "There's no excuse for enterprises not to have these because they fit with global growth strategy, improved working practice, carbon reduction programs, etc -- and the business case is demonstrable."
And more telecommunications companies are beginning to offer telepresence within integrated service packages, he notes. BT for instance is now offering managed telepresence as part of its Unified Communications and Collaboration package.
"So if you've got global network, now you can get telepresence on that deal," he says.
Environmentally-friendly and cost-saving
Environmentalists have taken note of telepresence, too. Peter Lockley, head of transport at the WWF-UK, says his organization is preparing an outreach campaign that will encourage businesses to adopt telepresence systems and reduce the amount of flying they do.
The campaign, he says, will be "pointing to case studies where businesses who are heavy users of flights have actually made a return on investment in 12 months or so because of all the various things they're saving on -- not just flights, but hotels, expenses, insurance and so on."
And that's not including the productivity gains, he adds. His group is also lobbying the UK government to include telepresence in an existing tax-write-off scheme designed to encourage energy savings.
Of course even if you don't get on that plane, the flight will likely proceed anyway and still pollute the skies.
"But over time if more people choose not to fly, then the number of flights will reduce compared to what would otherwise have been the case," notes Bill Sneyd, director of advisory services for The Carbon Neutral Company, which helps firms measure and reduce their carbon footprint.
Plus, "if companies reduce the number of flights that their staff take, then the emissions that they report associated with their air travel will be lower" -- under the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative, for example.
There are hurdles to telepresence being widely adopted, and the market is still in its "early growth" phase, says research firm Frost & Sullivan.
The firm recently completed a report on the Asia Pacific region and found the biggest restraint on telepresence is the cost and availability of high-quality bandwidth.
Second was the large upfront investment needed -- don't expect telepresence systems to sweep through Laos anytime soon.
But in that region and globally the firm projects strong growth for telepresence. The firm foresees global revenues topping $700 million in 2014, up from just shy of $110 million last year.
A key challenge for vendors is getting people to stop associating the shortcomings of videoconferencing -- like a jerky picture, delayed sound or complicated controls -- with telepresence.
"If you look at the reasons that people give for not wanting to invest," notes Lockley at the WWF-UK, "they are all linked to the older generation of technology. They're all complaints swept aside by telepresence systems."
Seeing is believing, so demos are a big part of the vendors' marketing efforts, he notes. A demo converted him, too.
"I was really bowled over by experiencing it," he says.