Ted-Schadler  by Ted Schadler

I had the chance to join 50 other people at a telepresence event last week. This one took place in real-time using Cisco's TelePresence rooms. (Okay, full disclosure, it was a Cisco industry analyst event held on December 9th.)

(This is a long post, so for those looking for key lessons and gotchas, just scroll now to the bottom.)

For those of you who've been asleep for the last 4 years as first HP and then Cisco followed by LifeSize, Polycom, RADVISION, Tandberg, and Teliris demonstrated the like-being-there experience of telepresence, it's pretty amazing stuff. Video conferencing with near face-time quality. You can in fact see the whites of their eyes.

Companies like P&G, GE, and Dreamworks are using telepresence technology to slash executive travel and give technical staff the tools to collaborate across massive distances with almost the same experience as being there (save the ability to shake hands, share a meal, and have a side conversation).

I first experienced telepresence in 2004 at HP's Corvallis, OR, lab, and it blew me away back then. It's only gotten better. (Colleague Claire Schooley has calculated the ROI of telepresence for those thinking about this technology.)

Back to this telepresence event:

  • Cisco used 12 telepresence rooms in at eight cities: Boston, New York, San Jose, Toronto, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Bedfont outside London.
  • At least 50 people joined from across 9 time zones. (Yes, some people had to get up early or stay at work through suppertime. So cry me a river.)
  • The quality of the communication was very high. It was like sitting across a conference room table from CFO Frank Calderoni, SVP Chuck Robbins, and sales VP Carl Weise for two hours. And each of the 50 attendees had the same intimate, conversational experience. Try doing that in a large conference hall.
  • Best of all, I didn't have to get on an airplane. And neither did 50 other people. We slept in our own beds, hugged our own families, and saved the hours or days it would have taken to get to the event.

It was a fabulous experience, something that I'm sure will grow only more important over the next decade.

Now, some gotchas and lessons learned:

  1. A single telepresence room is useless. Same as a single fax machine. And 2 rooms or even 5 rooms is almost as useless to most employees. You need dozens of rooms or end points for a network effect to kick in. (Just do the math. Hint: The value is exponential.) Now you know why Cisco bought Tandberg to add customers and cheaper products and why I'm so excited about desktop video conferencing. More "end points" is more better. (Cisco has the luxury of 666 rooms in 45 countries. No other companies do.)
  2. Smile, you may be on Candid Camera. With 12 rooms in the conference, it was typically the speaker and one or two other rooms on display. But which other rooms? Turns out it may be yours. So watch out how you're coming across. (One time, it was me, caught in the camera's unrelenting eye and displayed in technicolor agony for all to see as I conducted a side conversation with a colleague. On mute, thankfully. But I wasn't the only one. Several others failed to realize that they were scratching their nose or staring blankly into space.)


  3. Partner and customer collaboration is the next conferencing cliff to climb. Cisco knows this and is working with carriers like AT&T, Tata, and BT Conferencing to host "business exchanges" so video conferencing with customers gets easier. (By the way: Tandberg knows this, too, which is why it has also been building out a business exchange.)
  4. Desktop video conferencing will accelerate the benefits of telepresence. For two reasons: 1) The network effect really starts to kick in. 2) Normal people can participate, not just C-staff. I've seen Tandberg's demoes on this, and it's impressive. A high-end Webcam brings a person working at home into sharp focus on a 60" telepresence screen. Almost like being there.
  5. We're just getting going here. The ways in which telepresence can be used will only multiply. Technical reviews, customer conversations, public events, telecommuting support, and so on. Forrester, for example, is going to host our Business Technology "lean technology" event using telepresenceon January 22nd across five US cities. Love to have you join us.

I'm planning a report in the spring on the Business Value Of Video. I'd love to hear your stories.