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Video conferencing, virtual travel

As travel costs rise and airlines cut services, large and small companies are rethinking business travel and face-to-face meetings. The technology has matured to the point where it is often practical, affordable and more productive to move digital bits instead of bodies.

The emerging trend goes well beyond a reaction to rising travel costs and weakening economies. Past predictions that technology could replace travel have been frequent and premature. The main difference today is that the technology is finally catching up to its promise. There’s no single breakthrough—rather a series of advances in telecommunications networks, software and computer processing.

The results can be seen not only in the expensive new telepresence systems, but also in more mainstream collaboration technologies including web conferencing, online document sharing, wikis and internet telephony. Companies of all sizes are beginning to shift to web-based meetings for training and sales presentations.

Of course, face-to-face meeting are not obsolete. It’s simply that digital tools are making business travel more selective. A recent report estimates that up to 20 per cent of business travel could be replaced by videoconferencing today.

A range of companies offer the mainstream online communications and collaboration tools: WebEx, Citrix, Microsoft, IBM and others, plus top-end products from Cisco, HP and Polycom.

Completed telepresence rooms, typically with three huge curved screens (and a fourth screen above for shared work), custom lighting and acoustics, cost up to AU$420,000. That cost is rapidly decreasing.

With more than 200 telepresence rooms, CISCO says it is avoiding AU$120 million in annual travel costs, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from air travel by 10 per cent. HP says air travel for offices with telepresence rooms is down 25 per cent.

The paradox in ‘telepresence’ is that it stimulates the richest form of human interaction: people talking to each other, face-to-face.

But, many agree that it is not a perfect substitute. You don’t learn about other cultures with telepresence. You get things from being there, over breakfast and dinner, building relationships face-to-face.

Some years ago, I made a televised speech from San Diego to a conference in Australia. That could not compare with the level of personal interaction and enjoyment I achieved during my recent Australia trip. The travel time was about 14 hours each way. But, the personal interaction was worth the journey.

Green is going mainstream

Whether it’s because of high fuel prices, or worries about global warming, environmentalism seems to be going mainstream.

Al Gore’s recent film about global warming, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is the third highest-grossing documentary in history. The nay-sayers are being ridiculed as oil-company pawns. A major poll finds that more than two-thirds of Americans now believe global warming is having a serious impact, and it’s necessary to take steps right away to counter its effects.

Companies are learning to make their profit by helping nature rather than by destroying it. Capital is shifting towards making money through going ‘green’. That’s a seminal shift into a different kind of economy.

Automakers are finally getting serious about hybrids, expanding offerings and retooling gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs as hybrids. Consumers are looking for more energy savings which puts green builders and building products in demand. Skyrocketing energy prices are changing the math.

When energy costs were relatively low, making investments to reduce future costs was an uphill battle. But today’s energy costs moves the issue to simple fiscal responsibility.

My trip to Oz

I’ve just returned from a 10-day trip to Australia as the keynote speaker at the Citect Oceania User’s Conference 2008, in Port Douglas, Queensland. Topic: Future Global Trends in Industrial Automation.

Wow! Wonderful venue (Sheraton Mirage Resort) with 250 people attending, including about 150 end-users, 50 systems-integrators and the remainder our Citect hosts.

All the key people from Citect (Headquartered in Sydney) were there: CEO, Chris Crowe; Scott Woodridge, VP Oceania; Anthony Wong, Sales Director; Steve Flannagan, SCADA Director; and many others.

Schneider was represented by Lionel Finidori, Pacific Zone Manager, who opened the conference with a stirring speech, “Schneider is ‘bloody’ serious about Citect”—the Aussie expletive signifying the maximum commitment any parent company could make.

Judging by the luxurious surroundings, sumptuous cuisine, spectacular entertainment and enthusiasm at the well-planned multiple events, this was a celebration the likes of which I have not seen for a long time. This was reminiscent of the glory days of automation, decades ago in America.

I’ve visited Australia several times in the past, but always dashed in and out of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, missing some of the best scenery and surroundings. This time I spent a couple of extra days, starting with friends in Sydney, followed by a relaxing 4-5 days in Port Douglas (an hour from Cairns) and then 2-3 days in Brisbane, speaking at an industry luncheon hosted by Wayne Patterson CEO of Multitrode, and other local companies.

I’ve gotta tell you, I love Oz and the Ozzies! A country about the size of the continental US with wealth stemming from bountiful natural resources – minerals, metals, mining, oil – plus only 20 million people with an attitude that resonates friendliness, confidence and optimism. Perhaps this is reflected in their high ranking of Olympic medals per-capita.

I’m going back!

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