“My life is kind of hypocritical.” That was almost the first thing Bill Buxton – technology guru, principal researcher at Microsoft and an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto – said in a discussion with CBC Radio host Nora Young at the Mesh conference in Toronto in May.He was talking about the fact that he has done extensive research on video-conferencing and telepresence technology, advocates using such technology in place of physical travel, and yet would be jumping in a cab to the airport right after the presentation.
Buxton travels a lot. One reason is his reputation. But another is that for all the focus on technologies designed to replace travel, and all the hype about their potential, they are really only beginning to become real substitutes for being there.
Video-conferencing goes back to the 1980s, but video-conferences in those days were painful. The equipment was bulky and intrusive. Images were jerky, sound quality poor, and the whole business was inclined to crap out once or twice per meeting. And of course it could only be done in specially equipped studios and was horribly expensive.
Today studio videoconferencing is much better than it once was. And Web conferencing came along, initially with many of the same quality problems that the big systems had had a decade before. But Web conferencing also is steadily improving.
With the latest generation of videoconferencing systems from companies like Cisco and Hewlett-Packard, it’s possible to have a videoconference that is almost indistinguishable from actually sitting across the table from the people at the other end — provided you don’t mind dropping a few hundred thousand for equipment.
Early this year Cisco announced a single-user version of its TelePresence system. Very nice — but at $33,900, it’s still not for everyone.
And yet even the one-person business can do desktop videoconferencing using a webcam and a service like Skype or WebEx. It hasn’t really caught on yet, but it’s technically possible.
So why does anyone still travel?
Partly because technology can’t completely recreate the experience of many events. Mesh was a good example. I spent much of the day in conference rooms while one or more people at the front of the room talked. Videoconferencing could have replaced that easily, and in fact I often attend webcast events without leaving home.
But the coffee and lunch breaks at Mesh brought a handful of interesting conversations. Often at conferences I run into colleagues, people who become useful contacts, occasionally old friends. These casual interactions are harder to replace.
At Mesh, Buxton mentioned one Halifax-based employee who has a remote controlled robot that wanders the halls of his Waterloo-based employer, allowing him to chat with co-workers in an almost-real way. I saw another case recently of a telecommuting employee who still has her old desk at the office, with a large display screen placed where she used to sit, showing an image of her sitting at home.
As the technology gets better, physically being there will get less and less important. The airlines have been doing their part for more than a decade by making air travel less and less pleasant. We’ll be staying home more. But as Buxton says, we’ll never replace face-to-face communication entirely. We’ll also never eliminate the human desire to get away, to see something new and do something different.