Teleconferencing meets 21st century

An empty boardroom

TEXT OF STORY

Scott Jagow: For a long time, people've been say video conferencing is gonna change the way people do business. It's so much cheaper and more efficient. But up till now, the technology really hasn't been up to snuff.

Well, we've caught up to the future. Here's Jill Barshay.


Jill Barshay: Let's face it, telephone conference calls are boring. They don't hold your attention, and you have no idea what people are up to on the other end.

Charles Stucki is a vice president at Cisco Systems. He knows.

Charles Stucki: Well, I shouldn't admit it because someone might be listening whom I report to, but the first thing I do is hit the mute button, and then I start doing other things. And then I'm half paying attention at best.

Stucki's paying attention right now. He's in California and he's talking to me on a new Cisco video conferencing setup.

Video conferencing used to have a bad rap. You know, the voice delays and video glitches. But companies like Cisco and Hewlett-Packard are marketing products that use better technology. They're all calling it "telepresence."

Teleconferencer #1: Hi guys, good to see you!

Teleconferencer #2: Hey, How are you?

Teleconferencer #1: I'm well, how are you?

No one's playing office golf or back-of-the-door darts. The sound doesn't drop out. People are life-sized on huge screens.

Tony Mattera: This is right out of Star Wars.

Tony Mattera is a senior vice president at Wachovia Securities. Wachovia installed a telepresence system about three months ago.

Mattera: We would arrange trips, and then somebody would remember, "Wait a minute, we've got telepresence technology now, we don't need to spend the time and money on this flight."

Sales of video-conference technology are growing at 28 percent a year thanks to improving technology, says Wainhouse Research. Hewlett-Packard's telepresence rooms start at about a quarter of a million dollars.

But just because you're meeting on-camera doesn't mean you're going to pay attention.

Julie Rodriguez works for a not-for-profit in Minnesota. She's been video conferencing for 10 years.

Julie Rodriguez: Well I have to admit, I've been known to play Vortex on my iPod computer to keep myself focused, because the meeting was boring. So, a little confession there.

Wachovia's Mattera also admits to doodling on-camera. But on telepresence, he gets busted.

Mattera: You know, short of a holographic image in the room with you, sitting three-dimensionally in the chair next to you, this is as close as I've ever seen anything come to that in the 21st century.

But better conferencing technology doesn't have to mean the end of fun. Surely, some bright spark will find a way for conferees in New York and L.A. to play office golf together -- even when they're thousands of miles apart.

In New York, I'm Jill Barshay for Marketplace.

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