With Polycom and Cisco in a dead heat pushing pricey telepresence rooms, the use of video conferencing for everyday business is about to surge. And it's not just about reducing travel expenses. It's also about increasing staff effectiveness and staff efficiency.
For a related historical perspective, take a look at the evolution of fax technology. In the early 1980s, fax machines were so expensive that only major corporations could afford them. Each location was lucky to have one fax machine and it was generally tucked away in a nondescript room. One also needed executive level permission to use it. A decade later, businesses were busy placing inexpensive fax machines throughout their offices. Employee productivity surged trough the easy and quick (by 1990 standards) exchange of documents.
My guess is that the evolution of business video conferencing including high-end telepresence will follow the historical fax example, but with three major differences.
First, the need to add video to a more than two person conference is becoming the defacto standard because of the complexity in running an audio only conference. With video you can make sure no one is texting while your speaking and the resulting conversational flow is more natural. But video conferencing uses a multi-dimensional vehicle, i.e. a computer, which can easily integrate multiple data flows in real time. In reality, fax technology really just replaced FedEx. It did not allow or cause the flow of a meeting to change or change the basic business process. Video conferencing, because of its ability to integrate multiple process and data flows is a game changer in a way that fax could never be. Watch for a whole new set of features to be developed as video conferencing becomes an everyday business event.
Second, the rate of mass adoption will be faster. It took about 10 years for fax technology to become a ubiquitous business tool once the costs came down. With video conferencing, the adoption will happen within a couple of years once the industry hits a tipping point where the feature set actually works well. With video conferencing there is little additional equipment to buy. Most business users have high end camera equipped laptops with plenty of bandwidth.
Third. video conferencing will have a dramatic impact on how companies handle human resource functions, office space, travel, meeting documentation, and collective decision making. Many companies and project teams will be effective using a virtual approach without ever needing to physically meet. In the 1990s, one went to the office to use the fax machine. With video conferencing, remind me again why I need to go to the office.
For an interesting update on the whole Telepresence industry see Drake Bennett's BusinessWeek Article.