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Death of a (travelling) salesman

International travel used to be one of the best perks in certain jobs. Flying (particularly business class) was fun, relaxing and almost romantic. In straightened times, companies are increasingly downgrading even their most senior employees to economy and airlines have found inventive ways to turn international travel into a misery.

BA strikes annually, Qantas has just joined in; add to that natural phenomena, like last year’s Icelandic volcano, Eyjafallajökull, which ground airlines to a halt for days, the contempt with which budget airlines treat their customers, and you can see why the case for inter-company telepresence and effective visual collaboration keeps growing.

Teleconferencing once meant using telephones to communicate in business settings, but the internet has increased options and many teleconferencing systems now allow instant communication as well as the sharing of ideas on virtual boards.

Travel requires a lot of planning and co-ordination, but web conferencing with colleagues and clients means meetings can be scheduled within minutes and problems can be addressed almost immediately. Larger audiences can be quickly accommodated, some systems allowing for as many as 200 participants.

Human Productivity Lab and Brockman & Company regularly produce the ‘Inter-Company Telepresence & Video Conferencing Handbook’, the latest edition of which estimated that currently businesses conduct seven times more meetings in face-to-face scenarios, than using telepresence services.

There are several reasons for this, including a strong cultural belief that nothing cements strong working relationships like meeting in the flesh, but also some considerable technical and operational hurdles.

Mostly, it is not enough to just see and hear the conference participants, it is important to be able share documents, graphics and videos. Effective telepresence system operations need collaboration tools, like data sharing and interactive whiteboards – those collaborative materials used in face-to-face meetings.

The idea of video conferencing is to reduce company costs and increase productivity, but setting up networks can be hard work. Accenture, for example, has connected 31 firms, 600 rooms and 2 million partner employees. Connecting telepresence and visual systems normally requires joining together disparate and competitive providers, with different policies and practices and IP addressing protocols.

Security is a big issue and the policies of the least secure participants will tend to become the security policy for all, so network integration becomes increasingly fraught and huge attention needs to be paid to interfacing technologies, so as not to compromise network integrity.

Interoperability is the key issue in any new communications product category; setting up a network means vendors trying to force exclusivity rather than helping network customisation and flexibility. To set up a proper network, a sizeable company needs a dedicated virtual meeting specialist, responsible for dealing with the suppliers, internal communications, as well as inter-company telepresence, for product demonstrations or customer support.

This specialist co-ordinates, monitors, measures and promotes inter-company virtual meetings between the company and vendors, joint-venture partners and customers, becoming the focal point and manager for implementation and change. It’s a tough new job.

The best will integrate telepresence into the company’s sales processes, promote the company’s telepresence capability, with relevant video addresses on company cards and stationery, in order to highlight potential savings and efficiencies for employees and clients alike.

One blue-chip company, as part of an internal ‘culture adjustment’ programme, sent their sales team hotel soaps and complimentary peanuts to make up for the small losses they would incur, but also literature highlighting the benefits of video conferencing; less time in security queues at airports and more time spent with the family and efficient working.

What if you can’t afford this kind of outlay? Telepresence suites are available, like the tie-up between Cisco and AT & T at Grosvenor House and the Marriott Hotel in London. They offer a professional ‘pay as you go’ service, can be found in major cities throughout the world, but are not numerous.

The good news, however, is that the future of telepresence systems, like the future of so much technogical, is in the area of ‘apps’.

Rod Bailey is CEO of ExecutiveSurf and he says: “I dreamed of teleconferencing when I first started work; a telephone where you could could actually see the person you were talking to; the stuff of science fiction.What took me by surprise is that the basic version (Skype) is free. That’s remarkable, but currently the only secure way of holding a board meeting remotely and with a guarantee of signal.”

“We work in recruitment and operate in a world that has got much smaller because of the leaps in communications technology; the recruitment process now clearly makes use of Skype, which saves a lot of time and money in the initial selection stage.”

Bailey tells an interesting anecdote: “We worked for one client and carried out the first screen, including an English test, over the phone. It turns out when we spoke English we were actually talking to someone else. When it came to the Skype interview and the inevitable English question, we saw his hand move to the mouse and all connection was lost. We got hold of him ten days later and he had found another role, but Skype had saved us the plane fare from Spain to London.”

The MIT Media Lab has worked out how to use a (Microsoft) Kinect device to detect depth and make Skype conferencing more interactive and useful. Teleconferencers can blur out the screen, except for the speaker, which is helpful if you’re not in an office, but at home or a coffee shop. You can even freeze frame yourself if you want to appear on screen, but go to buy a coffee.

Bailey agrees new developments will move teleconferencing on in leaps and bounds and that the figure of seven to one in terms of meetings may well be reversed when it comes to international business.

Skype has just joined up with Panasonic to put Skype on Panasonic’s 2010 VIERA CAST-enabled HDTVs and provide crisp (up to 720p high definition) video calls, TV-to-TV or PC-to-TV. These new televisions have a built-in USB hub, so a webcam can be plugged in, (perhaps the specially designed Panasonic camera?), with a special microphone system that easily picks up sound from couch distance.

As iPad tries to become the ubiquitous tool for those in business, its camera must provide potential options for relatively simple, high-end, inter-company teleconferencing.

One of the first such apps is Idea Flight, developed by publisher Conde Nast, which enables a presenter to run a presentation from an iPad, with up to 14 other iPads, following it through the same wi-fi network (3 via Bluetooth). It is not yet big enough for large conferences, but it, or something similar, will inevitably be scaled up very soon.

The Idea Flight app is free for the ‘passengers’ and costs the presenter only a few euros. It has a smart feature which integrates with Linkedin profiles, so attendees can all exchange their professional details, without the need to hand over business cards.

Telecoms company, Polycom, has just launched an enterprise grade HD video application for the iPad, the Motorola Xoom and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Surendra Arora, VP of mobility, says: “We have fulfilled our promise of extending to the enterprise. Unlike our competitors, what’s truly impressive about our offering is the HD capability.”

Polycom’s offering has VPN client compatability, keeping conference conversations behind closed firewalls, which is probably more reassuring than the security Skype currently has to offer.

Research in Motion (RIM), is also keen to get in on the act and has just released a beta version of its new BlackBerry Mobile Conferencing application. It integrates with BlackBerry OS and RIM handheld users can easily invite other BlackBerry users to a teleconference and add new information to conference calendars. RIM is expected to announce a video-conferencing application for the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet soon.

Michael Toto is the director of Enterprise and Government Partnerships, at Verizon. He says: “In the last few years, telepresence and video conferencing have advanced to the next echelon, and, with 4G, we are moving business capabilities to the next level.”

Toto says, as an example, that these implications are huge for the healthcare industry, as a potential burgeoning marketplace. He says that mobile video collaboration is becoming mainstream for diagnostics and analysis and that Verizon expects the healthcare industry to be a major adopter, along with education, financial and creative fields.

Verizon is looking to make inroads into such industries with its Fuze Meetings, which complements existing conferencing solutions, extending video conferencing capabilities beyond the boardroom, to anyone with a smart phone.

Essentially, making video calls is quite easy and is getting cheaper. You just need a web camera and a headset for free videoconfercing, through services like Skype, or Yugma, which caters for up to ten participants, Vbuzzer, which offers free video conferencing on invitation and Ekiga (previously GnomeMeeting), an open source Linux native application.

Other free services include Tokbox, for up to six participants, Eyejot, which has a strong video email function, SightSpeed, a free PC-based call and single party video conferencing tool and iChat, for Mac users, which comes from Leopard.

For larger companies, looking to source paid video conferencing, there is also increasing choice, including the WebEx Meeting Centre, which is free for 14 days and provides chat and file sharing services for up to ten and includes Outlook integration. AT&T Connect is intended for corporates and has completely scaleable IP software architectures for voice and video, at a fixed price for unlimited use. It is partly hosted, partly onsite.

Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional is a powerful audio and video conferencing file sharing and whiteboard solution, with several pay-per-use plans.

As the cost of commuting increases and telecommuting (working from home) becomes a more attractive proposition, teleconferencing becomes a valuable aid to employer and employee. The key to working from home is communication and, as the cost of teleconferencing equipment has dropped, teleconferencing can be an effective way for telecommuters to keep in touch with their office and actually seeing colleagues may help those who feel their physical absence puts them at a disadvantage.

In the current recession, there are not too many practices that provide tangible environmental benefits, ease the pressure on employees and save companies money. Effective televisual collaborations are here to stay, in bad times and in good. They are improving on a weekly basis and the salesman is not dead, he’s probably just working in his lounge and his ability to manage his televisual presence will become just as important as his ability to hustle face-to-face.

Nigel Phillips

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