Monday, October 27, 2008

Cisco's Virtual Teleportation Replaces Airports

Aficionados of Star Trek have long anticipated the day when we could simply beam instantly to wherever we want to go. Well, the technology just isn't there yet. There have been some interesting experiments in quantum physics that suggest physical teleportation may indeed be possible. But it's probably going to have to wait for another century. We we have now, thanks to Cisco, is virtual teleportation.

What can the virtual form of teleportation do for you? How about take you instantly to a business meeting in Hong Kong or Germany or New York? You walk into the conference room and find your colleagues seated around the meeting table. But only some of them are where you are. Others are somewhere else in the world. They look the same, they sound the same. But they are on the other side of a table that you can't reach across.

Cisco calls this technology TelePresence. It's a major improvement in the last big advance in collaboration, video conferencing. The low resolution, small screen size and muddy audio typical of many video conferencing systems has been replaced by large flat screen displays, high definition full motion video, high fidelity audio, and a virtual conference table.

The table is the final touch of magic that makes the TelePresence experience seem real. Each TelePresence room is outfitted with a half table pushed up against a wall. When you turn on the system, the other half of the table appears through the video displays on the wall making it look like there is a single large table. Your local team sits on the physical side. Other participants sit on the virtual side. Except to them they are sitting on the physical side and you are sitting on the virtual side.

Cisco has deployed about 1,000 of these TelePresence systems to about 200 enterprise customers worldwide. They also have a fleet of their own TelePresence meeting rooms in 129 cities of 40 countries. I say fleet, because what Cisco has really created here is a replacement for airlines and airports.

Consider a typical business meeting. You go to an airport, board a plane, land at another airport, and then go to a more or less standard business meeting room at your destination. They're pretty much all the same. You have a large wooden desk with arm chairs in a windowless room containing acoustic tiles and fluorescent lights. There's an overhead projector with screen, a computer to upload your PowerPoint presentations, and a roll-around cart with coffee dispensers. The conference rooms are standardized, as are the airports and planes. So why not just get rid of the airports and planes?

Since all you really need are the conference rooms, just go ahead and hook them together. A TelePresence system and a high bandwidth connection allow you to remove the wall between the conference rooms and simply join them. It's just like opening the partition between two physical rooms in one building. Except that those rooms can be anywhere on Earth that you can get the needed bandwidth. That's pretty much any metropolitan area these days.

Cisco is now renting out their own TelePresence rooms starting at $299 an hour. Expensive room rent? Not really. You'll have a hard time spending less than that to transport one participant via air. If you need to send several people with perhaps overnight stays, Cisco's offer starts to look downright cheap. If your company does a lot of meetings, the cost of a dedicated in-house TelePresence conference center may well be justified. So it may cost up to several hundred thousand dollars for a deluxe setup? So what? How much does that private jet cost to operate and maintain?

Cisco's promoting their TelePresence service as an alternative to the inconvenience of travel. But the benefits go beyond cost savings and the avoided travel stresses. With TelePresence you have the ability to arrange same day meetings with international participation. Teams may just move into one of these rooms to collaborate on their projects. Imagine the productivity improvement when everyone is at the same table continuously. Communications delays become a thing of the past.

Cisco's order of magnitude improvement to video conferencing has created a "realness" to virtual meetings that could become so comfortable that physical meetings may seem ridiculous. Yeah, but, you can't all go out to lunch or dinner, can you? Why not? With the same catering at each end, why can't you dine virtually? There may even be a way to play those silly team bonding games with props and facilitators at each end. Anyone want to hang climbing ropes from the ceilings?

All this virtual collaboration may seem a bit awkward now, but I've got a feeling that it could catch on and become the norm rather than the exception. It wasn't that long ago that exchanging documents was done by overnight mail rather than instantaneous email or even FAX. Who wants to wait for the Post Office anymore? Could the day be far away that people will say, "who wants to wait for a plane anymore?"

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