For years, David Suzuki made annual trips to Australia, one of his favourite places, where the Canadian environmentalist also happens to have a large following. As well, he frequently lectured overseas and flew at least monthly to Toronto.
Three years ago, he realized just how much pollution he was causing when he read that a round trip from Toronto to London spews a tonne of carbon into the atmosphere. Since then, the 73-year-old founder of the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation has been trying to replace airplanes with a cleaner technology: video-conferencing.
Using a facility at the University of British Columbia, he's been making video presentations around the world without leaving his hometown - including an appearance screened simultaneously at four different campuses of a Melbourne university.
In December, his foundation will go further, installing TelePresence, a high-end video-conferencing system from Cisco Systems that mimics an in-person meeting. "When I saw TelePresence," Mr. Suzuki says, "the illusion was very real. The people seemed to be right there. Now I turn down 95 per cent of [travel]requests."
A green icon like Mr. Suzuki has a unique need to maintain a small environmental footprint, but businesses are increasingly taking similar measures, driven by the desire to cut travel costs and save employee time as much as be good to the Earth.
A December, 2008, report on "green IT" from Gartner Inc. points out that in some organizations, such as large global consultancies, business travel can produce nearly 50 per cent of the company's total greenhouse gas emissions.
But other reasons are keeping staff home, the authors note. "Congestion, pollution, security and health concerns have combined to make business travel increasingly inefficient and unpleasant."
All these factors have boosted corporate purchases of video-conferencing systems over the past three to four years, says Gartner analyst Scott Morrison, adding 150,000 to 200,000 endpoints (or video-conference rooms) per year.
Over that time, products have emerged - such as Cisco's TelePresence and Hewlett-Packard's Halo - that offer an immersive experience, making users feel as though they're in the same place as the people to whom they're speaking. To create the illusion, vendors don't just provide the equipment but outfit entire rooms on client sites with uniform lighting, paint and furniture.
"Seventy per cent of all communication is non-verbal," says Nitin Kawale, president of Cisco Systems Canada Co., "and if the quality isn't there, you can't do it [effectively]"
During a demonstration of TelePresence in Cisco's downtown Toronto office, the press of a button brought up two employees from Ottawa on three giant screens. "We just went to Ottawa," Mr. Kawale says. "We are in Ottawa."
Multinational companies such as Cisco find video-conferencing cost-effective - even at the cost of $35,000 to $350,000 per endpoint. The adoption is driven by executives, Mr. Morrison says, "who do a test run, love it and see it as a way of avoiding travel."
But use is spreading beyond the corner offices. "If you put this technology in smart people's hands, they'll find ways to change how they do business," Mr. Kawale says.
The biggest adopters of high-end video-conferencing are financial services giants, whose investment bankers "need to see the whites of people's eyes" when doing deals, Mr. Morrison says.
Manufacturers with far-off plants use it, as do knowledge industries such as health care, big pharma and high tech.
Still, business video-conferencing adoption has lagged behind the hype. The immersive systems are only a niche success, Mr. Morrison says. As of the end of 2008, only 2,200 rooms had been installed by clients globally.
Cost is a major reason. A TelePresence or Halo room costs an average of $200,000, but that's just a start. Add dedicated high-end networks needed to transmit the video, plus the ongoing maintenance and services of a technician on call, and companies can expect to pay $600,000 per room over a four-year period, Mr. Morrison estimates.
Another barrier to wider adoption are incompatibilities between vendors' systems and different users' proprietary networks. Still, Mr. Morrison believes the immersive systems will continue to add sales and penetration at the expense of other room-based solutions that still suffer from latency problems that cause sound and picture to fall out of sync.
At the same time, desktop video-conferencing is also expanding. The cost of personal VC devices that run over the Internet rather than proprietary bandwidth is dropping fast - systems are now available for less than $2,500.
Cisco recently announced the $3-billion (U.S.) purchase of Norway's Tandberg, partly in an effort to beef up its consumer and small-business share of video-conferencing. Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, has unveiled SkyRoom, a personal video-conferencing system that an HP executive said would cost less than a plane ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Video-conferencing's growth is firmly pegged to companies' bottom lines. Mr. Morrison increasingly sees firms making video-conferences an option within their travel-booking systems, with staff having to justify why a trip is necessary.
Mr. Suzuki likes the sound of that. He gets hundreds of requests for conference appearances. When he suggests a presentation over video instead, 19 out of 20 times the travel request persists.
"We haven't yet made that adjustment," he says, "to looking at having people fly [to meet with you]as a luxury." But, he thinks, in time we'll be forced to.
When conferencing works best
Virtual meetings are particularly effective when:
The participants have already met.
Conflict between the participants is expected.
The process being followed during the meeting is familiar to all the participants.
The topic is one with which everyone is comfortable.
Source: Gartner Inc.
Time and money saved
Cisco, which has 645 TelePresence rooms in 199 major cities, has made full use of the system to create cost and time savings. Since the system's introduction three years ago, the company has:
Held 408,202 meetings using TelePresence
Avoided 81,303 in-person meetings requiring travel
Saved $325-million on travel (based on an average of four participants per meeting and a cost of $1,000 per trip)
Saved $122-million in productivity costs (based on the number of meetings that didn't require travel, at an hourly rate of $93.75, with four participants per meeting and four unproductive travel hours)