Video conferencing: will this year by the tipping point?

Cisco_logoTalk about a tipping point.  In two separate conversations today, I heard people talk about video conferencing (VC) as an idea that has finally arrived. 

But VC is like soccer.  Every year is surely the year soccer has "finally arrived."   And every year it never seems to happen. 

But VC is much more urgent than soccer.  After all, the alternatives to soccer have not left each of us stranded for hours in a God forsaken airport, or, much worse, the captive of an overheating metal cylinder sitting on a runway.

It’s not clear exactly when our love affair with air travel ended but I believe it’s fair to say that no one is travelled with pleasure the last three years.  Everyone feels taken hostage.  Air travel, once a glamorous activity for the "international traveller", once a heroic activity for the "road warrior," is now a grim necessity for us all. 

We are primed to be saved by technology in an age stuffed with technological rescue.  But video conferencing appears to play the reluctant hero. 

One of these days we look back on constant air travel is a weird 20th century thing.  Something we no longer do anymore.  It can only be a matter of time.  If not this year, next.

And once we pass the tipping point, what else will change?

10 thoughts on “Video conferencing: will this year by the tipping point?

  1. Fish

    I work in an office of about 15 people and we are moving in a week to a new office. The new office is being fitted with a large flat screen TV and some fancy video conferencing equipment as well as Voice over IP phones hooked up to our computers. I suspect that the cost of the gear is making it more accessible but much like telephones there are network economies that will make it more and more worthwhile buying VC gear. I also suspect that these decisions do get made only every few years as offices move.

  2. peter

    I think there’s some more cultural anthropology to this story, Grant, but I’m not sure what it is. We seem to have no trouble establishing and maintaining relationships with strangers over the phone, and large business deals have been and are still done this way. The financial restructuring of Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd in the early 1990s, with some 120 or so banks in on the deal, is an example — with Murdoch phoning each bank president personally until they all agreed to go ahead. (Some of these guys, little banks in Wichita or Taipei, had no idea who he or News Ltd was, so his fame was not why they took his calls or agreed to the deal.)

    But for some transactions, we also need to meet our counterparts personally. Videoconferencing offers us more than the phone but something less than the personal meeting. I wonder if that stuff which is “less” is why the tipping point for VC is always permanently imminent. Perhaps we need to feel a person’s handshake or smell their cologne or see the dilation of their pupils in order to know them, or to feel that we do.

  3. Steve Portigal

    I’ll echo some of Peter’s comments – we just finished an interesting study of teleworking (where people spend some or all of their work time in a proper home office, but work for a large corporation and may also have a formal corporate office) and there’s definitely a strong concern about and desire for real face-to-face meatspace contact.

    Earlier we’ve worked with HP on their Halo conference system (the one that loses all the publicity wars to Cisco’s competing product – see the graphic in the posting) and although they can do some wonderful things at the high end of technology, the cost – and thus the availability of the technology – has been very limiting.

    Agreed that this is a major issue right now in business – in the weeks that we’ve been engaged in this research there have been many major press stories about the technologies, the shifts in knowledge work in general, etc. etc.

  4. Eric Nehrlich

    While I agree that air travel has become a chore rather than a perk, I don’t think I agree that constant air travel is going to be outmoded. I’m not even speaking as a road warrior, as I never fly for business. I’m merely speaking as somebody whose communities are geographically distributed across multiple cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco). Video conferencing may work for professional activities like meetings where there is a defined agenda, but it’s a damn poor substitute for the shared experience that friendship is built upon. In other words, I think that video conferencing may be okay for tasks, but not for experiences, and that difference is why I will probably continue destroying the environment with my constant air travel (e.g. imagine attending a wedding via video conference).

  5. Gary

    You’ve posed an interesting question, Grant. I am running a research conference in October and two of the invited scholars will be “attending” virtually–i.e., via video conferencing. In both cases, professional interest in the topic is strong, but busy schedules preclude travel, a minimum commitment of two days for a six hour conference.

    This arrangement will work for us: our conference is an exchange of current research findings. However, I agree with Eric that anything reliant on shared experience–e.g., the meetings of professional organizations, where re-connecting with peers is a vital part of the agenda–is limited sans the empathy-driven ties that occur during in-the-flesh intercourse.

    Off topic…I LOVED Transformations–brilliant, Grant!!

  6. srp

    This subject kind of reminds me of the old idea of “the paperless office.” Supposedly the paper industry guys used to have lots of sessions on this topic at their annual meetings, until they realized that all the hand-wringing was misplaced. Computers resulted in the creation of more paper documents.

    When the telephone was invented, people expected hotel industry employment to plummet because it would eliminate all the jobs for message runners and bell captains on every floor. Instead, the telephone so facilitated business travel that many more hotels were opened and total employment rose.

    I wonder if the internet isn’t having the same effect. We now have more people with whom we interact in distant places, which increases our desire to visit those places. Videoconferencing might have a similar effect.

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