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CHIPS Articles: Virtual Mobility Through Telepresence

Virtual Mobility Through Telepresence
By Mike Hernon - July-September 2010
This column typically extols the virtues of enterprise mobility by promoting technologies that enable the workforce to remain productive while untethered from the desktop, regardless of location. However, with today's concerns regarding carbon footprints, not to mention the pressure to rein in travel budgets, there is a compelling interest in examining alternatives to the standard business trip. Luckily, advancements in video conferencing technologies have arrived that provide a "virtual mobility" capability that delivers a true alternative to getting on a plane for an important meeting.

Not Your Daddy's VTC
I suspect many readers were rolling their eyes at the suggestion that a video teleconference could be a viable alternative to a face-to-face meeting. It is true that most of the VTCs conducted today do not provide a quality experience — the images are often grainy and poorly lit; the sound sporadic and tinny; and there can be significant latency, rendering conversations difficult to conduct in a normal fashion. The ability to share or work on documents in this environment is also severely constrained. Additionally, the process of setting up, activating and maintaining a VTC connection often requires support staff to assist and remain on hand to troubleshoot any technical difficulties.

Due to these shortcomings, standard VTCs do not provide a platform that approximates a face-to-face meeting required for a truly productive, interactive and collaborative session between remote parties. As a result, VTCs are not viewed as an attractive option; and many VTC systems sit unused or underutilized.

The new generation of VTC technology, however, referred to generically as "telepresence," addresses these issues and delivers an experience that is stunningly different from a standard VTC. Visually, use of widescreen, high-resolution plasma displays — placed at eye level instead of hovering overhead — deliver full-size images and allow participants to truly look each other in the eye. Microphones and speakers are also of high fidelity, producing CD quality sound that is natural and with reduced latency. The tools to share documents, as well as work on them remotely, are light-years ahead of the standard VTC.

By leveraging these advances, telepresence delivers an immersive environment that is remarkably realistic and more easily supports collaborative efforts among remote parties. In a telepresence session you can easily read facial expressions and body language from the other parties as well as even subtle voice inflections.

Furthermore, the call set up and initiation requirements are handled automatically behind the scenes and integrated with Microsoft Outlook, so scheduling a telepresence session is as easy as issuing an invitation through Microsoft's calendar function.

As a realistic alternative to travel, the benefits of this virtual mobility capability could be significant for the DON in terms of its carbon footprint, cost savings, and for personnel who are able to avoid the hassles of traveling.

Carbon Impact
As a global enterprise, the DON has people on the move constantly. Much of this travel is, of necessity, by air, which delivers copious amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. For example, a typical flight for DON business is the Washington, D.C., to San Diego route, with one stop. For that round-trip flight of approximately 2,500 miles, the Union of Concerned Scientists (see "Getting There Greener," December 2008, www.ucsusa.org) estimates that 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide would be expelled per traveler on a wide-body jet with medium efficiency. This is 18 percent of what a car of medium efficiency would expel in a full year in 12,000 miles of driving! (See www.terrapass.com for a carbon calculator covering various travel options.) Not included in these numbers are other carbon sources that travel necessitates, such as hotel stays, which may be relatively minor for any given trip, but add up over the course of multiple trips.

If you replaced five such trips with a telepresence session you would offset the carbon footprint from driving for a full year! When you consider the number of trips that Navy and Marine Corps personnel take in a year — many of which are much longer than 2,500 miles — the enterprise carbon offset that could be realized through telepresence would be a compelling number indeed.

Cost Savings
By going mobile virtually you not only save on carbon emissions, you save money as well. In 2009, the average business trip within North America was expected to cost $1,139, with international trips costing up to $3,556 (see American Express Annual Global Business Travel Forecast Oct. 22, 2008, http://home3.americanexpress.com/corp/pc/2008/aebt_forecast.asp). These numbers do not include all the new fees that seem to arise each time a traveler checks in at the airport which now can easily total $200 or more on a round-trip.

Depending on the size of the command and number of trips avoided, the return on investment to pay for the telepresence equipment could be accomplished within a relatively brief period of time. As with carbon offsets, the aggregate cost savings across the enterprise would grow dramatically and accrue over the life cycle of the equipment.

Don't Travel, Be Happy
Lastly, in addition to carbon and cash, travel avoidance also saves tons of time. For the enterprise, avoiding travel time leads to increased hours engaged in productive, rather than idle, time. Perhaps more importantly, telepresence also has direct benefits for the erstwhile traveler. By avoiding the drudgery and lost personal time that travel invariably entails, people are able to spend more time at home engaging in those activities which are important to them.

Telepresence is likely to grow within government circles as it has within the corporate world. The benefits to the enterprise, the workforce, and the planet present a compelling case for its widespread adoption.

Mike Hernon is the former chief information officer for the city of Boston and currently serves as an independent consultant. He supports the DON CIO in telecommunications and wireless strategy and policy. For more information, contact the DONSpectrumTeam@navy.mil

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