Videoconferencing's perfect storm has arrived. Consider: skyrocketing energy prices have jacked up the cost of driving, and made air travel expensive and unpleasant. Equally important, dramatic technological improvements in high-definition audio and video and cheaper bandwidth have made videoconferencing -- and its big brother "telepresence" -- a much better and less expensive alternative.

Companies are taking notice. Frost & Sullivan estimates videoconferencing was a $1.1B market in 2007, up 29% from the year before. And according to TeleSpan, videoconferencing sales have risen from 115,000 systems in 2004 to 176,000 in 2007, while the number of telepresence systems leaped from none in 2004 and 50 in 2005 to 1,000 in 2007.

But even though I work with colleagues, contacts, and customers spread across the nation and around the world, I'm not using videoconferencing -- and I'm betting that you aren't, either. The real reasons for that aren't just technological or economic; they're also emotional and psychological.

People simply aren't comfortable with videoconferencing. They don't know how to behave on camera, so they tend to shy away from meeting via videoconference for fear of embarrassing themselves. This classic YouTube video demonstrates the situation perfectly -- and hilariously:

To get the bottom of this conundrum, I've been checking out videoconferencing and telepresence systems and talking with people close to the business. The results have been revealing.

Videoconferencing Raises Emotional Issues

The problem, as I see it, is that many people don't know how to have a videoconference. Everyone knows how to have an in-person meeting, and the now-commonplace audio conference calls were never that hard to figure out. As we all know by now, audio conference calls have led to the ubiquitous -- and annoying -- practice of muting your phone and basically checking out of the meeting and doing something else without anyone really noticing. That is, until someone asks you a question. Then you forget to un-mute your phone and no one can hear you so you frantically press buttons and repeat your answer while everyone on the call realizes exactly what you were up to (because they do it, too!).

One of videoconferencing's big benefits was supposed to be upping the engagement level so that kind of nonsense doesn't happen -- there's no "hiding" on a video conference -- but what are the social conventions and business etiquette for a videoconference? "First thing, people are taken aback when you see yourself on TV," explains Inderpreet Singh, director of emerging technologies for Siemens, which offers OpenScape videoconferencing solutions. "They ask, 'How do I look?'"

At Ipswitch, a midsize software firm in Lexington, Mass., videoconference participants often like to lower the lights, and one employee even suggested stretching pantyhose over the camera to soften the focus and make people look better on screen! "People are incredibly conscious of how they look, even more than if you were in the room with them," says Ennio Carboni, Ipswitch's VP of network management. Because Ipswitch is in the relatively casual software industry, some workers might be comfortable in jeans in person, Carboni says, "but not in a videoconference."

In addition to the concern over appearances, Carboni says, "people are much more conscious of body language, their own and others," in a videoconference than in a face-to-face meeting. "There's a whole protocol that's still in discovery."

"I've never been comfortable with videoconferencing," agrees Chris Roeckl, VP of marketing at the wireless firm AirMagnet, because he, too, is worried about how he looks.

John Antanaitis, VP of marketing for voice and videoconferencing vendor Polycom, says "We're in transition mode from video conferencing to video communications It's not just people sitting in a meeting. It's changing people's behavior to take advantage of the technology."

And when I talked to Colin Buechler, senior VP of marketing for LifeSize Communications -- which specializes in HD videoconferencing -- he boasted that "What's unique here is the emotional experience of the technology." When he shows LifeSize systems to small and midsize businesses, Buechler says, "they can't believe the experience." He means that in a positive way, but it's also revealing.

Similarly, David Hsieh, Cisco senior director of marketing for emerging technologies, says that telepresence users quickly forget they're in a video conference, not a live meeting. (He even tells of a "telepresence moment" when a participant in India had to take a restroom break, and someone in California casually offered her directions to the facilities near his office.) At the same time, though, Hsieh says that participants in telepresence meetings pay more attention than those in a face-to-face meeting. "You know you're on camera," Hsieh says, "you feel like you're being watched."

Ipswitch's Carboni agrees, and says that people are less forgiving about errors in a videoconference, even compared with a face-to-face meeting. As people learn that, Carboni adds, they tend to make greater efforts to be prepared for videoconferences. You can't hide the way you can in an audio conference call, he says, or even the way you can in an in-person meeting.

The videoconferencing industry isn't really addressing those emotional issues, however, hoping instead that improved technology will solve the problem by itself.

Technology Drives The Telepresence Approach

Videoconferencing comes in many flavors, from essentially free Webcam-based impromptu video chats to HD-videoconferencing systems costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Polycom's Antanaitis says that telepresence is designed to feel like a consistent user experience. "It's all about hiding the technology so you just walk in and have a meeting."

At the very high end, though, telepresence systems attempt to make an end run around the limitations of videoconferencing by closely simulating the experience of an actual, in-person meeting. I had the chance to check out Cisco's high-end CTS 3000 system at the company's San Francisco office -- in a special meeting with Cisco VP Rick Moran. It was very impressive, with three giant screens in a specially designed room offering practically life-size video images with a very high-quality level.

And my telepresence conversation with Cisco's Moran was pretty darn close to a "real" meeting, but for me, at least, it was still a trifle awkward. For one thing, walking into this impressive, pristine room was a little intimidating. While there were no visible video cameras and the technology was largely hidden, it still felt like you were in a television studio. It felt expensive, like you were spending money just sitting there. That made it harder to act totally natural, at least for a newbie like me. Moran seemed perfectly at ease, though, so it's likely that people get more comfortable with a little practice.

As Marty Hollander, senior VP of marketing for Net-based video conferencing firm Vidyo puts it: "Telepresence is like being there, and that's great, but you have to go to a special room and schedule it." And, in fact, it took a couple days of e-mails flying back and forth to schedule my telepresence test.

Soft Solutions To Videoconferencing Fears

Even without telepresence, there are still ways to shape the videoconferencing experience and make it more comfortable. Below the telepresence level, says Vidyo's Hollander, videoconferencing is "a different experience than live, but you get absorbed in it -- people stop doing their e-mail. It's not fooling you that you're in the same room, but you do feel like you've been in a meeting with these people."

Many people think it's really a matter of familiarity, so while AirMagnet's Roeckl predicts that full adoption of videoconferencing "will have to wait for our kids, who grow up using Webcams," Vidyo's Hollander believes you can raise the comfort level through repeated exposure. "Beginning with a typical Skype video chat," Hollander says, "it will creep into people's behavior from the consumer side."

To help speed that transition, Siemens' Singh suggests showing participants how they look on screen for a moment at the beginning to make sure the system is working, and then turn it off so you don't see yourself during the conference.

But Polycom's Antanaitis doesn't believe people have to learn new behavior to do videoconferencing. He says that you can start with audio chat and add video as needed, without disrupting natural social interactions. And Hsieh says that at Cisco, "We don't guide meeting participants to do anything different than they do in person."

Eventually, "It becomes quite addictive," Buechler says. Once companies start using it, they find more and more uses for it and usage levels go up. Users "really get a kick out of it."

That kick can hurt, though. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote of Embarrassing Virtual Meeting Faux Pas (not limited to videoconferencing) and suggested some useful tips:

  • Set up connections 15 minutes in advance to adjust sound levels and camera angles.
  • Disable instant messaging and telephone settings that could be disruptive.
  • Dress appropriately and be mindful of too-casual behavior.
  • Avoid eating, drinking, and gum-chewing.

Ipswitch adds a few policies of its own: the company allows mute in a videoconference only in absolute emergencies, and it has rearranged its conference rooms to make sure all participants in a videoconference are visible. "Hearing people speaking but not seeing them on the video is a distraction," Carboni explains.

Technology Still An Issue

In addition to the social factors, of course, videoconferencing also has to deal with lingering technical issues.

Melanie Turek, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan, says the key technological challenges of videoconferencing include the need for bandwidth upgrades to deliver high-definition video as well as finding a way for the mixed installed base of old and new systems from multiple vendors to actually work together.

According to Carboni, bandwidth is a special concern for mobile users. "If there's a lag in bandwidth that day, it can be frustrating," he says. "Free wireless connections can be especially bad."

To cope, Ipswitch instituted a policy requiring users to log off the video portion of the conference if their connection is causing problems. And to avoid tensions springing from latency delays that can lead participants to "talk over" each other, Ipswitch asks participants to wait for three to five seconds before speaking after someone stops talking. "People feel like they're being cut off," says Carboni, but it's just the technology."

Technology makes a difference, too. Cisco's Hsieh says that while traditional videoconferencing systems get used less than an hour a day, Cisco Telepresence systems are typically busy four to five hours a day. The higher audio and video fidelity makes people comfortable using the system for more applications, Hsieh says, including sensitive discussions like job interviews.

Even the jump to high definition can help. "In SD [standard definition], I can tolerate only half an hour [of meetings, But] I do five to six hour video conference calls [in HD] and I don't get fatigued," marvels Siemens' Singh. "Same as an in-person meeting."

And while HD is expensive, with systems starting around $6,000, it's still much cheaper than full telepresence, partly because you don't have to build out a special room. Marketing consultant Peter Brockman sees HD videoconferencing systems as the sweet spot in the market, delivering much of telepresence's value at a fraction of the cost.

Interoperability is another challenge. Users of HP's Halo telepresence system, for example, can't meet with companies using a Cisco Telepresence system. And the situation is even worse when you try to mash together the various levels of videoconferencing and telepresence equipment and vendors.

On the plus side, Cisco recently introduced telepresence systems for individuals and for large groups that can interface with each other. The Personal System 500 lets users participate in virtual meetings as an equal participant, appearing life-size to participants in other Cisco TelePresence rooms. But even the personal system costs $33,900, while the TelePresence 3200 for large groups list for $340,000!

And the interoperability issue also has a user-interface component. One of the strengths of telepresence is that it controls the experience for all parties. As you include participants connecting in different ways, though, the conference experience naturally varies from user to user.

For example, Polycom's various levels of videoconferencing all work together, which solves one problem. But that also means that different people in the conference are having different experiences. Participants have to learn to take that variability into account, just as live meetings often deal awkwardly with some participants calling in remotely. "Yeah, it's different," acknowledges Antanaitis. "That's the reality of our world."

Given the social and technological issues, Buechler says, videoconferencing "will never take the place of someone sitting in the room, but it lets you prioritize. The bar is much higher for getting on a plane."

Or even for getting in the car. As gas approaches $5 a gallon, a lot more people may find themselves worrying about how they look on video.

Finally, if you want to see how much you're saving (in both carbon and cash), check out iLinc's Green Meter, which uses a mathematical algorithm to detect the locations in a Web conference and calculate how much travel was avoided and how much CO2 wasn't emitted. Saving the planet -- and saving money -- may lead to the repetition needed to make videoconferencing a comfortable, everyday reality instead of an occasional, awkward alternative.

More About Videoconferencing From Around The Web

  • "Accenture figures its consultants used virtual meetings to avoid 240 international trips and 120 domestic flights in May alone, for an annual saving of millions of dollars and countless hours of wearying travel for its workers."
    As Travel Costs Rise, More Meetings Go Virtual -- New York Times
  • "A company spending as much as $23 million annually on travel can use telepresence to recover as many as 385,000 hours of lost productivity, reduce its carbon footprint by up to 4,200 tons, and save up to $7 million."
    Deloitte Turns To Videoconferencing To Cut Costs, Carbon Footprint -- Environmental Leader
  • "Only a few keystrokes separate one's private life from the virtual world. The wrong computer settings, an awkward Web-camera angle, and even something as harmless as the "hold" button on the telephone can create lasting career memories. And unlike face-to-face blunders, virtual gaffes can be captured for posterity on Web sites and ridiculed by viewers time and time again."
    Virtual Meetings Raise Risk Of Embarrassing Faux Pas; A Suit on Top, Jeans Below - Wall Street Journal
  • "24 managed to make plausible use of the technology, which facilitated tense virtual face-to-face conversations between the White House and the Kremlin. CSI: NY, however, didn't do so well, clearly being forced to use the equipment to obviate a 5-minute journey as opposed to a transatlantic flight between the U.S. and Russia (touché to the directors and producers of 24 for putting some thought into it.)"
    CSI: NY, 24 and Cisco TelePresence (Videoconferencing 2.0?)- Bradley de Souza
  • "IT-oriented value-added resellers (VARs) have their own slew of problems. They are facing off against audio-visual (AV) shops that sell telepresence, as well as a brand of channel partners calling themselves conferencing systems integrators. That's in addition to telecom service providers with global networks that make a natural fit for capacity-hungry telepresence applications."
    Telepresence Comes Of Age: Partners Play Catch Up - SearchIT
  • "InterCall recently conducted a survey where individuals were asked what their companies are doing to reduce the size of its carbon footprint. The top response was providing conferencing tools to cut back on travel (66%)."
    Conferencing Leads Green Business Practices -- Environmental Leader
  • "First of all, there is a 6X to 9X price multiplier distinction between HD and telepresence equipment. For example, list price for a Cisco TelePresence 3000 room is $299,000, while the MSRP for the LifeSize Conference HD equipment is $39,999."
    The Emperor Has No Clothes: Does Telepresence Really Deserve a Premium? -- No Jitter
  • "With prices of most systems ranging from $200,000 to $500,000 a room depending on the number of screens, telepresence has widely been considered a niche technology for multinational corporations. But high gas and travel prices, as well as improving video technology, are causing smaller firms to reconsider the high-end systems."
    'Telepresence' Is Taking Hold - Wall Street Journal
  • "BT claims to have reduced its carbon footprint by 97,000 tons of CO2 per year, that's 15% of its CO2 use, by using phone conferences and videoconferencing to cut back on staff travel for meetings."
    BT Cuts CO2 Footprint 15% With Videoconferencing -- Environmental Leader