Virtual meetings gaining in popularity

December 7, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
The annual Consumer Electronics Show is a few weeks away, but a number of manufacturers have already announced they will not return with booths this year.

Now Las Vegas hotels are reducing rates significantly to try and keep attendees from canceling. The slumping economy is being blamed for this and other reduced business travel.

Who stands to benefit from all of this? The answer is Silicon Valley companies that make videoconference equipment.

A survey by the National Business Travel Association indicates that 75% of all corporations are dealing with the economic downturn by canceling some business trips.

Recently, a man could be seen on a huge video screen in San Francisco saying, "I'm here in San Jose California and I'm sitting in a room just like yours. But obviously, we're about 50 or 60 miles away. "

It was a conference call on steroids.

Cisco has more than 300 videoconference studios inside its own corporation and many more located at client sites.

The man on the screen was Cisco VP David Hsieh, who markets emerging technologies.

"At a company like Cisco, we've saved a couple hundred million dollars in travel expense over the last 18 months. Others of our customers have saved tens-of-millions of dollars in travel reduction."

The company calls the technology "Telepresence" because it is intended to simulate a physical meeting. It uses cameras connected to the Internet, but subtle touches create a greater illusion.

For example, both locations are identical down to the wall color so the remote room looks like the other half of the original room. The physical table runs into the virtual table seamlessly. The sound is spatial so it follows the speaker's voice around the room.

"The concept of video communications and video meetings has been around for decades. AT&T showed a videophone in 1964," says Hsieh.

The first demonstration was actually at the 1939 World's Fair. A consumer experiment by AT&T in 1991 failed because it came before the Internet and used a 3-inch screen instead of today's 53-inch plasmas.

In the current economy, Cisco expects this to finally become a multi-billion dollar business.


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