If you've ever sat through a video conference, hopelessly scanning your interlocutors' tiny faces on a TV screen for a clue about who is uttering the disembodied words reaching you with a one-second delay, you're likely to hope that the corporate travel budget will soon be reinstated.
As funds for business travel have been slashed over the last few years, the video conferencing business has been widely seen as an alternative to in-person meetings. But video meetings can be a frustrating and awkward affair. Speech can get out of sync, and words can be dropped. The video screen can act like more of a communications barrier than an aid.
An Ohio-based startup called Telesuite aims to change that. Forget everything you thought you knew about trying to talk to a TV. The barely recognizable faces? Gone. The poor lighting? Departed. The nerve-jarring sound delays? Distant memories.
Telesuite's concept is simple. Twin conference rooms, complete with expensive-looking wood finishes and plump leather chairs, are built in two locations far apart. In each room, eight to 20 executives sit in one or two rows, facing a miniature movie screen encompassing the whole breadth of their peripheral vision.
They sit at a conference table as usual and look across the table at a huge video screen depicting in full size their colleagues across the country or around the world, as though they were sitting directly across that table, seemingly close enough to shake hands.
And you can hear what they say without the distracting delay. Telesuite offers a near-perfect synchronization of image and sound, making it surprisingly easy to have a normal conversation.
Big companies with offices spread over large distances have been quick to grasp the advantages of the new technology. PricewaterhouseCoopers, Time Warner's AOL, GlaxoSmithKline and Capital One have all installed Telesuite rooms, which they use anywhere from 30 to 120 hours a month, Telesuite says.
It's not hard to see why the concept is an easy sell to multinationals. First, firms used to flying hundreds of executives every month can easily cut their travel expenses by half. Second, the company enjoys increased productivity, as employees no longer waste a whole day on a plane to attend an hour-long meeting. Last, the virtual meetings are an opportunity for more people within a company to meet almost face-to-face, since plane ticket expenses are no longer a disincentive.
The other good news is that Telesuite requires no specific infrastructure. A bare room is enough, and the whole environment can be assembled or taken out in a week, no screws involved.
Telesuite has encountered such success with its business clients that conference rooms are now being built in prestigious hotels around the world so that companies can invite their own clients to meet virtually. The Waldorf-Astoria in New York has one, as does the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix and the Savoy in London. More of the suites are coming in Europe and Asia later this year. Eventually, Telesuite might opt for a partnership with a big high-end chain.
Schools are getting interested too. The University of Arizona and Duke University have adopted the technology in an attempt to make some classes available to distant students or other schools.
Of course Telesuite is not the only provider of video conferencing devices. Cisco Systems and 3Com have long offered their own systems, and Web conferencing, cheap and easy to set up, is booming.
But if you need to meet face-to-face without jumping on a plane, Telesuite is the most convincing offering out there. Even though, at a starting price of about $8,000 a month--all services included, such as leasing fees, maintenance and reservations--the snazzy technology is much pricier than traditional video conferencing. But when clarity counts, it may be worth it.