James Cameron's blockbuster hit Avatar viscerally depicts the power of an avatar in a way that software geeks couldn't begin to communicate or illustrate in code. Nothing in Second Life, The Sims or other virtual worlds comes close to the movie for illustrating the power of an avatar to insert a person into another environment or "world." In fact, if you haven't seen the movie, I can say that it's hard to leave the cinema without wishing — darn it — why can't we really do that??? (Sort of like, "beam me up Scottie," why can't we do that too???) [If you are like me, I wonder . . . when will we be able to do that because surely sometime in the future we'll be able to. But, I digress.]

Last week some of my colleagues and I had a completely different experience that leaves me thinking that avatars aren't really the future. Instead, literally being there — yourself — in a virtual fashion is a more human and natural way of interacting than using an avatar to represent yourself. What am I talking about? It's telepresence — the high resolution, life-size video conferencing tool that, in this situation, was provided by Cisco.

Here's what happened. Last year we decided to bring our Business Technology Forum not only to the real world in Chicago but also to the virtual world over telepresence. Last Friday, Mike Gilpin, Clay Richardson, Ted Schadler and I got to deliver that virtual event by spending 3 hours interacting with 14 clients in 7 cities using telepresence. The cities were: Atlanta, Boston, Herndon VA, Irving, New York, San Jose, and Washington, D.C. In addition, we had one company that dialed in from its own telepresence facility.

I have to say — it was an awesome experience. The level of interaction was amazingly high, and it was great because we could closely observe everyone much better than if we had been in a large conference room together. After it was over, Mike, Clay and I (we were all in the same room together) debriefed and each of us actually preferred it to a live, in-person event. I think it is because the level of interaction and the intensity was even higher than the traditional type of conference. Clay shot some video of the discussions and I think you'll see a blog post from him soon.

Usually when I describe telepresence, around now someone asks the question: "did the technology get in the way?" My answer is: no, we forgot all about the technology. It felt like everyone in remote locations were in the same room with us. In fact, it was a lot more realistic than if we were sitting in a virtual world with one person as say, a butterfly avatar, one person as a starlet avatar, and so on. In contrast, this was a real business meeting.

Cisco did a great job making the experience seem seamless. All the rooms are painted the same way, have the same furniture and other decor, helping make it look like one big room. However, there were a couple of non-technical things that would have helped us, and they are simple and easy to correct. Specifically, 1) we could have used name cards so that we could refer to each other instead of pointing, and 2) we could have used a high resolution monitor to show the slides rather than having the slides shown by a projector get washed out by the light in the room. But bottom line: the technology works even better than you can imagine. I hope we get to do it again, and we thank Cisco for hosting it for us.

Now, I believe all enterprises should look at telepresence technology, given how vulnerable we are to disruptions in business travel due to terrorism, plus the carbon footprint flying requires and the sheer hassle factor. But, in addition, I think telepresence is relevant to business process professionals in these ways:

  • Process discovery is a complex effort, often spanning many different locations, particularly in a multinational company. Telepresence could be a major way to expedite and simplify the human dimensions of process discovery, and could help with change management too.
  • Sustainability is a newly emerging area that we must all pay attention to. Some processes will be modified to support sustainability and new processes will emerge around sustainability. I recommend looking at telepresence as a way to incorporate sustainability into existing and new processes, both within the company and in communicating with customers.


Plus, it's cool and way fun to do. Who needs an avatar, anyway???