BETTER VIDEO?: Dedicated videoconferencing technology has come down in price and up in quality thanks to the use of the Internet, but it remains to be seen whether it can truly replace travel. Image: COURTESY OF LIFESIZE
When President Obama wants to talk with his military commanders in Iraq, he doesn't just pick up the phone. There is dedicated videoconferencing technology in the White House that enables him to speak with experts around the globe. And although the technology the administration uses is classified—the White House declined to identify the system—it is clear that it is a lot more environmentally friendly than firing up Air Force One.
According to Saul Griffith, a wind power kite scientist at Makani Power, Inc., in Alameda, Calif., and co-founder of the Web site Wattzon.com (an online energy-consumption calculator), air travel is the biggest impediment today to living on less energy. In a quest to reduce his own annual power use from some 18,000 watts to just 2,291 watts (the amount that he calculates uses up his yearly quota of greenhouse gas emissions), he says he now can only take one round-trip flight from San Francisco to New York City a year and one to his birthplace in Sydney, Australia, every three years.
"Someone has to make absolutely ever-present video conferencing—it's possibly the most important technology anybody can be working on," he said at the Greener Gadgets conference in New York City in late February.
Several companies, including Cisco Systems, LifeSize, Polycom and Siemens, among others, have been working on such technology for years—and the cost-cutting reality of the present economic crisis is helping to speed its adoption. It is unlikely that videoconferencing can replace all travel, but organizations are turning to it more and more as the technology's downside—shaky connections, dropped calls and disorienting lags—largely has been eliminated.
The Philadelphia-based national law firm Cozen O'Connor, for instance, which unsuccessfully experimented with videoconferencing in the late 1990s, recently installed LifeSize Express and Room systems at seven of its 23 branches. "It didn't work too well back then," says Joe D'Urso, the firm's telecommunications manager, who estimates the firm uses the videoconferencing technology about 100 hours a month. "The equipment has gotten better."
One of the main advances has been shifting from dedicated lines to sending video over the existing network that carries the Internet, using standard internet protocols, or IP. That has allowed the kinds of delays once common in such videoconferencing to be minimized without any impact on the company's internal network. "You can actually have a real conversation," says Joan Vandermate, vice president of marketing at Polycom, which provides dedicated, high-definition videoconferencing via packets sent over the Internet. "It's as close to really being in the same room as you can get."
That has also helped bring down the cost from as much as $250,000 to just $5,000 for the Express system at Austin, Tex.–based LifeSize. Frost & Sullivan, a technology consulting firm, estimates that the videoconferencing business is growing by some 20 percent a year, reaching $1.5 billion in scale in 2007.
More rudimentary video conferencing can be accomplished via Skype, iChat on Apple computers, or Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro software (the latter of which is used by the U.S. Department of Defense, according to Adobe). "It is an adequate experience," acknowledges LifeSize's senior vice president Colin Buechler, but "you're not going to avoid a business trip with a desktop call."
Such cheap, reliable videoconferencing also opens up the possibility of remote applications for expertise, such as in medicine or law. "You used to bring people to experts, now you can bring experts to the people," says LifeSize chief technology officer Casey King, noting that Adena Health System in southern Ohio has already used the technology to help its regional centers care for premature babies rather than transporting them to a specialized center.
Virginia's Supreme Court now uses Polycom video systems at 300 facilities across the state to issue some 820 warrants a day. The city of Richmond alone estimates the system saved it $1.2 million in overtime pay for court personnel in its first year and paid for itself in three months. Similar efforts are underway in Michigan for processing inmates and in Texas for delivering medical services to inmates; the latter has saved the state an estimated $215 million over the last six years, according to its own estimates.
But, ultimately, the case for videoconferencing is a case against travel, whether carbon dioxide (CO2) spewing from a car's tailpipe on the ground or a jet engine in the stratosphere. At least that's what Atlanta-based Vanguard Truck Centers, which sells and services trucks, has found.
Since installing seven LifeSize systems (at a total cost of $62,000), the company estimates it has saved $85,000 a year in travel expenses and, more importantly for the climate, 135,000 pounds (61,200 kilograms) of CO2. "We're in the transportation industry and have definitely saved on travel," says Vanguard's director of IT and targeted marketing Greg Baxter. "It doesn't take the place of all travel but it definitely takes the place of 40 to 50 percent of it."