Telepresence: State of the (Affordable) Art

We’ve written before about some of the big-ticket telepresence systems – and our skepticism about their place in the average web worker’s life. But between the super-expensive systems and the cheapest of webcams, there seems to be another level of telepresence emerging – systems that are good enough to be worth using, and not so hideously pricey as to be out of reach for everyone. A recent blog posting by Microsoft’s Scott Hanselman gives a glimpse of one man’s experiments in this area.

Now, working for Microsoft does give Hanselman a leg up that many web workers won’t have – he can assume, for example, that all of his coworkers are available via Microsoft Live Meeting. But reading through his account, I was struck by how much difference comparatively low-tech solutions are apparently making to his ability to work remotely (he’s in Portland and the rest of his team is in Seattle).

For example, for conference room meetings, he likes the Microsoft Roundtable system – and from his description, it’s a great advance over the “speaker phone on the conference table” system that many of us have had to put up with. The RoundTable system runs around $3000 – not pocket change, but certainly not excessive for some web workers with one big steady client.

But the RoundTable system is far from his only way to be at least partially “at” the main office. He’s using a variety of other tools, from Oovoo to screen sharing, to provide more information bandwidth than a simple phone call. For the future, he’s also been brainstorming with another Microsoft remote worker about the possibility of using telepresence robots.

Many web workers will identify with Hanselman’s key takeaways:

The things that’s been taking me the most time is:

  • Equipment: Setting up people who don’t have these tools (software, webcams)
  • Patience: Convincing people that setting these things up are the ONLY way I can effectively do my job.

I am absolutely convinced that video conferencing builds relationships almost as much as showing up in person.

How about you? Are you convinced of the benefits of videoconferencing and telepresence for remote work? Are prices dropping and capabilities rising fast enough to make it work out well for you?