What it is: Telepresence is a high-definition room-to-room video conferencing system marketed by vendors such as Cisco, Polycom and Hewlett-Packard.
Lawyers at DLA Piper used the technology to hammer out the details of a patent dispute. One legal team gathered in San Diego, another met in Palo Alto eight hours up the California coast. They spread documents out on their tables, brewed coffee and chatted for several hours as if they were in one room. The roll-out, begun in July, was so successful that most offices are now clamoring to add the technology, says Donald Jaycox, the DLA Piper CIO.
To read more on this topic, see: Cisco Struggle to Move TelePresence Down Market Prompts Tandberg Buyout and Telepresence Cuts Near $1M in Travel Costs for Law Firm.
Why the Hype: Telepresence is cool and futuristic. Vendors often sell it as an enterprise-class silver bullet for top executive concerns—saving on travel, improving productivity and enhancing collaboration. But most vendors don't release hard ROI data.
The Real Deal: In many cases, telepresence works well as a replacement for physical meetings. The international accounting firm Deloitte has replaced "thousands" of physical meetings with Polycom telepresence and cut travel costs—important in an economic downturn and as part of a corporate green initiative, says CIO Larry Quinlan. A Forrester Research report published in February found that companies using telepresence save about 20 percent on travel annually.
For most companies, though, video conferencing is more about a webcam feed between laptops. A telepresence suite can cost as much as a row of servers or a new storage area network array. Ted Schadler, an analyst and vice president with Forrester, says high-priced telepresence might be justified to connect large headquarters' offices. But the fewer the people who use the technology, the smaller the return, says Melanie Turek, a principal analyst for enterprise communications at Frost & Sullivan.
Another challenge has to do with getting room-based telepresence to connect with standard business video conferencing and laptop webcams—so the reach is limited in connecting groups of employees. There is also the issue of how conference rooms must be designed for telepresence. "We had little difficulty with implementation, but some trouble with room build-out such as lighting hot spots and acoustics," says Jaycox. "Telepresence gives the illusion everyone is sitting around the same conference table, but things as simple as having a thermostat in one room and not in another can spoil the experience" because people quickly realize the other location looks different.
Should You Invest?: If you can afford it and you'll use it a lot. DLA Piper spent 60 percent of its deployment costs on the equipment, 30 percent on room-readiness, and 10 percent on installation. Jeff Steinhorn, the CIO at Hess, has implemented telepresence in four global locations. But he says the technology should fit the need: webcams for quick chats, telepresence for important meetings with senior executives. He is watching the market as the low-end improves and the high-end gets less expensive. Getting the two to connect? Priceless.
John Brandon is a freelance writer based in Minnesota.