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.