Les Williamson sometimes gets out of bed to drive to his office for a 2am meeting with colleagues in the US and Europe via telepresence technology. For Cisco's chief executive of Asia Pacific, it's far easier than all that goes with making a long-haul flight. Telepresence is a high end audio visual solution of an immersive and lifelike nature that allows participants to focus on their meeting objectives rather than technology.
Already in the US, large retail companies are buying telepresence units and putting them in the offices of their key suppliers, so that they can maintain close business relationships.
The Levis of this world will be able to set up the technology in Taiwan or China and see the quality of the fabric before they order it and send it to manufacturing sites, says David Cannon, senior analyst for Telecommunications with IDC Australia.
The next stage of this model, is likely to be hotels in business capitals that will adopt telepresence to tie in with their existing conference offerings and retain market share in business travel, says Cannon. This will work to the advantage of groups who do not require frequent telepresence and to smaller and medium-size companies.
Telepresence enables teams to collaborate and connect quite intimately with each other, as well as with customers and partners, says Williamson.
"In Australia we've held more than 900 meetings in the eight months since the system came into operation," he says. "We are running at 70 per cent utilisation of our capacity between Melbourne and Sydney," says Williamson, who plans to roll out Cisco TelePresence beyond the Melbourne and Sydney headquarters to Auckland, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth.
In traditional corporate life, people book a meeting for half an hour or an hour, but most telepresence sessions end early because the technology doesn't get in the way, he says.
"I'm tracking carbon footprint reductions, opportunity time gains, and customer impact around the utilisation of the capability and I'm pleased with the results," he says.
Williamson has reduced his travel by 20 to 25 per cent, and has set that goal for his team.
In Australia, there are two acknowledged customers - Telstra and ANZ Bank.
As more units are introduced communications will expand beyond inter-company to link with other companies, he says.
Already Les Williamson is using TelePresence for interviews and has already hired people he has met only in that forum.
HR departments are not only looking at telepresence for staff acquisition but induction and training and development, says Philip Siefert, country manager for Tandberg, the global videoconferencing group. Tandberg has an agreement with HP to provide high definition systems to Halo, HP's telepresence product.
The biggest change in telepresence over the past year has been market awareness, says Siefert, with more CEOs having read or heard about this new telepresence category. HP Halo was one of the earliest players in the telepresence market and BHP-Billiton is its most high profile user in Australia. The group has expanded from four teleconferencing rooms to eight including Melbourne, Perth, London, Singapore, Houston, The Hague, Santiago, and Shanghai. HP Halo Collaboration Systems also launched HP Halo Meeting Room in 2007 to broaden access to the product beyond those within the Fortune 1000.
Some of the biggest users of telepresence technology are likely to be pharmaceutical companies and medical schools, says Michael Chetner, company manager for Australia and New Zealand for the Polycom Group that offers the Real Presence Experience or RPX4. It is a room within a room blending multiple locations seamlessly using four or two plasma screens, rear projection and pinhole camera.
RPX4 can be set up like a boardroom table or as a tiered lecture theatre. Polycom group offers a range of videoconferencing products that sit under the RPX4, or can be deployed in other locations, and complement existing video and audio conferencing, even from other makers, therefore leveraging the existing investment, says Chetner.
Productivity is boosted by telepresence technology, say Chetner. It enables multi-site teams to make decisions on an hourly basis rather than waiting for a couple of days.
As well as the high end telepresence solutions, there are more portable, lower bandwidth options such as Microsoft Office RoundTable that places a camera in the centre of a meeting room. It displays a panoramic view of all participants at the bottom of the screen placing the dominant speaker in shot at the top of the screen.
The audio switches to whoever is speaking at the time. Images of all the participants, be they remote or in the main room, are stitched together.
As more telepresence comes on stream, the costs are likely to come down. At first if you wanted to have telepresence capability between Sydney and Perth you would have been talking $20,000 - $30,000 per month, use it or not, says David Cannon of IDC.
"Then the incentive to utilise the technology was absolutely minimal," he says. "However, the advent of business grade broadband services where you can now get two megabytes basically in both directions means you can pick up that solution for, say, $600 a month and that's from one side of the country to the other.
For Les Williamson, however, while the green footprint and productivity gains are significant, he can't put a price on the main advantage - more time with his family.
* Telepresence is a high end audio visual solution of an immersive and lifelike nature.
* It allows participants to focus on their meeting objectives rather than technology.
* Telepresence enables teams to collaborate and connect with each other, as well as with customers and partners.
Fairfax Business Media