Monday, August 27, 2007

The despised business of videoconferencing is about to get a new lease on life

FOR most of the 23 years Kenneth Crangle has spent at Hewlett-Packard, a big computer and printer company, he was a typical road warrior, constantly travelling for business. He was usually miserable. He hated the jet lag. Then came 9/11, shoe bombers, SARS and bird flu. His daughter became sick, exacerbating his reluctance to travel. There must be a better way to meet and do business, Mr Crangle recalls thinking. So he started work on an alternative.

The result is something called “telepresence”, which HP and other technology firms are just beginning to sell. It is basically a spruced-up version of videoconferencing, but its creators insist that the technology is so improved as to be unrecognisable. Users still communicate via live audio and video feeds, but the speed and quality of transmission have increased, and the screens have grown and multiplied, in order to create the illusion that the two parties to a conversation are not continents apart but at opposite ends of the same table (as in the picture above). The aim, telepresence's boosters say, is to get participants in such meetings to forget, or at least stop caring, that they are not in the same room.

Videoconferencing was supposed to put an end to corporate travel. But positioning people in front of a camera, fiddling endlessly with controls and then either giving up or proceeding to stare at a tiny picture of a blurry face often seems less satisfactory than the humble telephone. Such “conversations” are often a sequence of time-delayed interruptions and missed social signals. Just as the technologies that were supposed to deliver “the paperless office” actually deluged it in print-outs, videoconferencing sometimes works so badly that it leaves users feeling alienated, and so keener to meet face-to-face than they had been in the first place, say Andrew Davis and Ira Weinstein at Wainhouse Research, a consultancy....More from The Economist