Even as many companies look to find the least expensive alternatives to in-person meetings, other companies are looking for the best possible simulation of a real meeting. I recently had meetings in San Francisco and New York, where I saw both sides of the phenomenon.
In San Francisco, I attended a "salon" for small-business execs hosted by Citrix Online, which makes low-end conferencing and presentation products like GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar. I heard firsthand how business owners and managers are using virtual meetings and videoconferences. In New York, I visited the offices of Teliris, which has been selling high-end videoconferencing systems -- telepresence, if you will -- longer than anyone else. Teliris CEO Marc Trachtenberg gave me a sneak peek at some cool new technologies in the works that are designed to make virtual meetings significantly more natural and productive.
The San Francisco salon I visited was populated with Citrix Online customers, so it wasn't exactly a scientific sample. Still, I thought some cogent comments emerged that would be of interest to other business owners and managers.
Peter Rumm, manager of online marketing for CruiseWest, a high-end cruising company based in Seattle, has customers, travel agents, and ship captains distributed all over the world. After 9/11, Rumm explained, in-person meetings simply weren't an option. The company was forced to let go of its field staff and, as a result, began using virtual meeting technology to connect with its clientele.
"We do feel that we miss some subtleties," Rumm added, "but we still have a good time. We joke around and get to know each other as best we can. We picked it up very quickly. We knew we had to."
There are even local benefits: Sturdy McKee, CEO of San Francisco Sport and Spine Physical Therapy, a chain of seven Bay Area physical therapy outlets, uses Citrix' technology to bring together managers from his different locations. By keeping his employees out of their cars, he saves on driving time and -- he noted -- liability. He's also considering using it for online mentoring of new physical therapists and to help patients remotely. "We still meet face to face," McKee said, but he's happy to use virtual meetings whenever possible.
On the high end, Teliris' garrulous CEO, Marc Trachtenberg, was happy to tell me about his company's Virtual Vectoring and Dynamic Screen Manager technologies, which are designed to automatically adjust camera angles so participants feel like they're actually looking at the person on the screen. But I was more interested in a look at Teliris' new Touch Table, which will, no doubt, eventually trickle down to more mainstream videoconferencing apps.
Basically, the table is a "content-agnostic" screen, replicated on both ends of the conference. Users can call up any document, video (including HD), or even PC screen and share it with the other side just by "pushing" it across the table. The gesture-based touch-screen interface - built on a "secret" operating system and "proprietary" algorithms and software abstraction layer-- resembles a giant, horizontal iPhone, letting you quickly grab, rotate, and manipulate the objects with intuitive movements.
Almost as cool, you can insert special RFID cards into the Touch Table, making all of your network files available in a menu bar across the top of the table and with rules-based permissions controlling who can access what. Oh, and Teliris is also working on a vertical version of the Touch Table. It's called the Touch Wall, of course.
I wanted to take one home, but Touch Table aside, how will small and midsize companies be able to take advantage of telepresence technology given the steep prices of Teliris' offerings and other high-end systems?
According to Trachtenberg, don't look for telepresence service bureaus any time soon. "I don't believe in a shared business right now," Trachtenberg said. "We have customers who won't walk two floors to use one." He also said that many of the announced implementations of videoconferencing for hire have never actually been completed.
But that will begin to change in 2010 and 2011, he predicted, when prices come down and companies finally start making telepresence suites available for others to use. We'll see it in big cities first, and then in other spots. He predicted prices will run $400 to $700 per hour, or about the price of an airline ticket per conference.
And as system prices continue to come down, look for more and more smaller companies to install systems to communicate internally as well with their partners and customers. One strong incentive will be for smaller companies to work with larger organizations that have already invested in the technology.
In the meantime, the reasons for growing companies to find some way to take advantage of videoconferencing remain too compelling to ignore.
5 Reasons To Hold Virtual Meetings:
- Travel displacement
Given the costs of travel these days, any technology that can reduce the need for business trips is worth exploring. Virtual meetings can't replace every trip, but even HD videoconferencing systems don't cost much more than a single round-trip, overseas, business-class airline ticket.
- Increase productivity and collaboration
Virtual meetings dosn't just replace in-person meetings -- they also enable more frequent virtual get-togethers between trips. And it gives people who might never meet face-to-face much more interactivity than e-mail, phone calls, or even conference calls.
- Business continuity and security
Sometimes, natural or man-made disasters make it difficult or impossible for employees to travel to the office, much less to distant sites, for meetings. Similarly, some work sites may be unsafe for an extended period of time. Virtual meeting technology can enable your company to continue doing business in those areas.
- Work-life balance
Travel isn't just expensive -- it's also time-consuming. With virtual meetings, key employees are able to spend more time at home with their families. That can lead to less-stressed workers and better employee retention.
- Carbon - emission reduction
Hey, if you're not traveling, you're not spewing carbon into the atmosphere and contributing to global climate change. Even the savings on car travel can be significant, but it's the plane travel that really hurts. Sure, you're still buying equipment that takes energy to produce and run (and may even contain some toxic elements), but that's nothing compared with burning fossil fuels to fly people around the globe. And if it's not enough to feel good about saving the planet, tell your customers and potential customers about it. You might actually gain sales while cutting costs and pollution.
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