Expanding telepresence

* Will telepresence products ever reside in the branch office?

Like most new (and expensive) technologies, telepresence is gaining the attention of global enterprises that have large concentrations of employees at a dozen or two dozen locations worldwide. They can install these expensive systems at those sites, and reduce costly international travel expenses.

Telepresence systems, which rely upon high-definition video, high-speed networks, and wall-size video screens, produce an environment that make meeting participants feel as though they’re in the same room, across the table from one another. They have advanced traditional videoconferencing systems to the point where high-level executives feel comfortable using the technology.

As I wrote in my last column, one of the biggest drivers is the business case. Enterprises typically spend about $500,000 per room, though prices start at about $250,000. Even at the high end, organizations will recoup that cost within a year by reducing international travel by 2% to 5%.

But one question weighing heavily on some IT executives’ minds (particularly those responsible for hundreds or thousands of locations) is whether it will ever be affordable enough for branch locations. The answer? Yes.

Like most new product lines, the technology will improve and the cost to produce it will drop. Already, one necessary component for telepresence is affordable. High-speed Internet access is available and affordable to branch locations in most urban and suburban locations.

But it will take some time for the products, including high-definition, room-size screens and accompanying video equipment, to become affordable. None of the vendors in this space are marketing the equipment to branch offices today, but you can bet they will as the technology becomes more prevalent.

The demand definitely exists, as more and more workers move to branch locations. Will it ever make sense for the very small branch locations with fewer than 20 employees? Probably not, but depending on who those employees are, it very well might!

For large branch offices that house 100 or more employees, the systems could be quite beneficial. And they’ll become affordable for those types of sites when they hit the $50,000 to $100,000 range. I anticipate the products will get to that price point in about four years or less.

Until then, branch office employees will travel to the nearest telepresence center when they need to attend an important meeting. The justification? It would be cheaper to send those individuals to a nearby city than it would to send them to another country. Yes, that justification has existed for years with videoconferencing rooms. But the difference with telepresence is that people actually want to use it because the quality is so life-like.

In the next several years, branch employees will simply go down the hall to their own telepresence room. Ultimately, the technology expands the pool of people who can provide input for critical decisions and collaborative projects. That’s a benefit not only for the individuals, but also for the organizations and their ability to effectively compete in a global workplace.

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