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Cutting Down On Transportation Isn't Crazy

This may sound a bit off-topic for an energy blog, but I'm excited by the upcoming release of new online video software.

It's part of a class of videoconferencing called "telepresence" -- a technology that blows past current video to present a realistic image of the person you're talking to, often in life-size on huge video displays. Telepresence isn't really a new idea, but what is new is that we're entering an era in which the technology could be both cheap and ubiquitous.

Videoconferencing has already cut down on business travel to some extent, but it's generally accepted that common conferencing tools like Webex more often just replace phone calls -- seeing a tiny face on your laptop's screen is a good step up from a voice alone, but it's still difficult to pick up the expressive nuances that make all the difference in striking a deal.

I got the chance to check out Cisco's telepresence offering last year to conduct an interview with an executive, and it blew me away. It's more than just plasma screens and high bandwidth -- the company goes the distance to create identical offices and lighting to convey the feeling that everyone is in the same room.

Unfortunately, all the caring attention came with a hefty price tag of $300,000; lower-cost alternatives coming this year and later were still projected to carry five-figure price tags. That's out of reach for consumers, and even most companies will balk at the cost. Cisco's widest distribution of telepresence ended up being within its own buildings (though it claimed to be saving huge amounts of money on travel).

Now a puckish startup called Vidyo is saying that it has an even more cutting-edge technology that can remove many of the costs that would otherwise keep telepresence pricey, even once advanced displays become cheaper.

The likely result, if Vidyo's claims pan out, is that Cisco, HP, Polycom and other giants will figure out ways to rapidly bring down the costs of their own technology, putting it in reach of both the consumer and business worlds years sooner than expected.

There's one more piece to this puzzle, of course -- people must become comfortable with the idea of canceling their flights and scheduling a telepresence meeting instead. But history has shown that truly useful, disruptive technologies often become major players very quickly (blogging is a good example).

To take an example close to hand, look at the Copenhagen climate summit (to which Cisco actually donated a few telepresence units). During the conference, complaints were rife that the delegates were wasting oil and creating massive greenhouse gas emissions with their flights.

But it's not hard to imagine that the world's leaders would have preferred not to attend in person at all -- if telepresence had become ubiquitous and acceptable. It would be a different world, but perhaps one not far away.

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