Home > Environment > Tipping point for teleconferencing ?

Tipping point for teleconferencing ?

August 16th, 2007

Matthew Warren[1] has an interesting piece on the possibility that teleconferencing will displace air travel as a result of pressure to reduce CO2 emissions. I’ve been enthusiastic about this possibility for a while, with the idea that easy access to video telephony through Skype, iChat and similar will lead naturally to the kinds of innovations, both technological and cultural, needed to make teleconferencing a viable alternative.

This is one of those tipping point things (BTW, this term has itself reached a tipping point, to the extent that it has been banned in our household along with “mantra”, “smoke and mirrors” and others) discussed by economists under the category “network externalities”. If we’re going to make use of these things we need to be connected to lots of other people. One of my projects for the next year or so is to establish a wide range of videolinks. This also includes videoblogging (vlogging). All I need is a bit of free time to get things going, which probably means nothing will happen much before 2020.

fn1. Not someone I’ve liked much, but this shows he can do good work if he wants to.

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  1. August 16th, 2007 at 20:56 | #1

    Link?

    Is this Matthew Warren environment writer for the Oz and former coal industry lobbyist?

    OT: Anyone watching the currency markets tonight? The AUD was trading at 0.7861 a short while ago (about 8:45pm EST) but has come back since. WOW! There sure is some fear out there.

  2. conrad
    August 17th, 2007 at 07:43 | #2

    I don’t know why they don’t use it already. It seems to me that organizations like the WTO would easily have the money to use this technology and could get everything they need to get done with it. Why they insist on having meetings that cause riots in every city they want to hold them in beats me. If they just want to give their staff junkets, then they may as well just give them junkets and admit it.

  3. August 17th, 2007 at 08:09 | #3

    it may come as a shock to ‘economists’, but most human activity has a psychological component not obviously connected to financial gain.

    teleconferencing will not happen at the highest levels, anymore than ceos and national panjandrums will be driven in korean family cars. it’s all part of the ozymandias complex.

    at lower levels, the junket phenomenon will continue, it’s a tax effective reward in societies with corrupt tax law. that’s all of them.

  4. jquiggin
    August 17th, 2007 at 08:26 | #4

    Carbonsink, it’s the same Matthew Warren, and I’ve added a linl

    AL

    “it may come as a shock to ‘economists’, but most human activity has a psychological component not obviously connected to financial gain.”

    It may come as a shock to lazy and ill-informed critics, but economists are actually aware of this, hence, for example, my reference to the need for cultural innovations in the post above.

    Since you don’t appear to have any startling psychological insights to contribute maybe you could turn down the snark.

  5. August 17th, 2007 at 08:31 | #5

    I second conrad’s motion, and suggest APEC urgently consider giving the new system a trial by cancelling the scheduled Sydney meeting and buying webcams for all the government heads instead.

    BTW I hope ‘blood and treasure’ is on the list of forbidden phrases chez Quiggin.

  6. AnnaK
    August 17th, 2007 at 08:57 | #6

    Being the passionate climate campaigner, I am faced with they to-fly-or-not-to-fly moral dilemma quite frequently. When I do the mental cost/benefit analysis on the fly/videoconference options it pretty much always ends up in favour of the videoconference option, but for the transition costs.

    For example, the progressive organisation I work for flew me from Brisbane to Melbourne and back, at the modest cost of around $300, (make that $309 after carbon offsetting) for one day of meetings. That took a good 8 hours of in-transit/in-waiting time for me, so lets say another $240. Add in accomodation costs, meal expenses, cost of time for the other staff I was meeting with, and so on, and I would think that for $1009 or so could probably have been better spent on some half-decent software, a couple of phone calls to tee up the meeting times, and would have achieved the same results.

    The greatest cost is the ‘social transistion’ costs – getting people used to and ‘trained’ in using the software and video technology. One would think that in this case, a little investment having a dedicated trainer to help out in the initial instances would save a lot of money, and carbon emissions, in the long run.

  7. conrad
    August 17th, 2007 at 09:39 | #7

    AnnaK,

    you don’t need to pay anything for small meetings if you have a decent internet connection and a web cam (about $30). Just download the latest version of Skype and plug your web-cam in. It works fine and doesn’t take the slightest amonut of brains to use.

  8. frankis
    August 17th, 2007 at 09:43 | #8

    The snark aside I agree with al loomis’ comments. In fact I’m so clueless personally that I then thought teleconferencing should have been arriving back in the 80s, and became depressed when I realised just how keen most people were on their carbon-bingeing junkets and “business” trips. It seemed then and still does today that for most of us telecommunication is deemed far inferior to a chance for “business” travel for face to face meetings, greetings and carousings/chances for novel sexual encounters …. maybe I’m saying teleconferencing with optional teledildonix (the term of art?) is indicated.

  9. August 17th, 2007 at 09:48 | #9

    The transit time is a killer, but I still do it, as it is my experience that nothing beats face-to-face close up meeting.

    A phone call is over in a few minutes, travel for a meeting can take a few days (of total time) but it is amazing how outcomes are different in a personal meeting rather than over the phone.

  10. 2 tanners
    August 17th, 2007 at 09:57 | #10

    Without taking away from Conrad’s point about junkets, there are many places in the world without the infrastructure to hold important meetings by teleconference. That means either flying the least privileged somewhere else (with all the moral hazards entailed) or denying them a voice. WHO is a real case in point – many of the African and Pacific countries it deals with could not reliably take part in a teleconference.

    Even in Canberra, with a broadband connection in a central suburb I have encountered data rates that have meant the webcam is not an option. A ‘decent’ internet connection can be expensive, perhaps in cash terms less than an airfare.

    With APEC meetings and similar, where all participants could afford a reliable connection, part of the value – perhaps most of it – is in the ‘corridor discussions’. that’s a bit harder to organise and very much harder to secure. All negotiations tend to be the same in that sense. Perhaps one day we’ll see a cross between VPNs, Second Life and those Eyetoy games to superimpose faces for virtual, rather than video, conferencing. Still, it’s harder to hack a real meeting.

  11. Roger Jones
    August 17th, 2007 at 11:06 | #11

    Have tried to videocommute to Europe, telecommute to South Africa etc etc. It’s bloody awful, including videocommuting in Australia (Australian broadband – I spit in your gravy!). It can be done to cut down the number of meetings but does not seem to manage the human stuff, so the most crucial meetings are still needed. I also wonder if it could be done with avatars in VR at some time in the future ’cause the feed may be less than a video stream.

    Facial expressions, body languages and cues for who is going to say something when, are all incredibly useful. Signal delays are as bad or worse than a disfunctional chair who punctuates the proceedings with deathly silences.

    2 tanners’ point about international or cross-cultural contact is spot on. Meeting face to face is a mark of respect in many cultures that cannot be got around, until many groups become convinced that social intercourse can be adequately managed across the ether.

    We need this tech, but for me it’s not there yet

  12. AnnaK
    August 17th, 2007 at 12:55 | #12

    Conrad,

    point well taken. I’m certainly no luddite and already have skype on my computer. No webcam yet, but they are only $30 or so as you say.

    I suppose the key here is that I, as a climate-aware employee, should have the confidence to turn down a flight+meeting combination and suggest a videoconference instead. It’s just not yet the norm in my organisation, and would require some work to get it initiated on a wider scale. The ‘videoconference’ idea would have been just as effective as a face-to-face meeting only if the webcam could be wireless so that a staffer from the melbourne office coule actually walk ‘me’ around the office and introduce ‘me’ to people, show me the layout of the office etc, who was in what teams and so on, like was done when I came down for the face-to-face meeting.

    Only when we are confident enough to start treating a webcam like it is actually a person looking at you will we start seeing changes here. To me, that doesn’t seem like such a hard thing to do.

  13. August 17th, 2007 at 14:08 | #13

    People need to stop thinking about ‘videoconferencing’ as if it’s a second-rate way of conducting the time-wasting meetings that we’ve all spent so many days of our lives attending. That’s 1980s linear thinking.

    Online communication has opened up entirely new means of collaborative consultation and decision-making based on multi-tasking. Anyone who can’t work this way in 10 years time will be like a person today who wants to write letters instead of email.

    Online collaboration isn’t taking over just because it’s cheaper and saves huge amounts of time – although it is and does – but because it’s more effective.

    I could draw a parallel with distance education. Unimaginative academics are using online technology to present all the same materials to students that they used to send out in hard copy. Basically all that’s changed is that students now have to download and print the stuff instead of having it mailed to them. Oh and they might get the optional use of a chat room which only a handful of students will use.

    Other academics are using the internet to craft completely new modes of distance learning that involve lots of online interaction and assessment. The technology is seen as a marvellous opportunity to improve learning outcomes, not to save money.

    I reckon I know which approach to distance ed will prove to be the way of the future.

    I read somewhere that Bush and al Maliki have a weekly videoconference. I bet it’s all set up like a regular conference and they’re surrounded by flunkies. Maybe the two of them should try AIM instead and tell all the hangers-on to leave them to it.

  14. rickwood
    August 17th, 2007 at 15:28 | #14

    I cant see videoconfing take over in a fundamental way from face-to-face , although there is lots of scope for switching to video-confing (or video-phoning) at the margins.

    The reason I doubt it will take over is that, even with infinite bandwidth, the latency alone is enough to make it a 2nd-class communications experience. All the other stuff which dilute the experience, like the dreaded ‘auto-focus-on-speaker’ video-cams, and the lack of an ability to aurally triangulate remote speakers (and hence, deal with overlapping remote speakers), are at least partly fixable with technology, but will still take a good while yet.

  15. rickwood
    August 17th, 2007 at 15:31 | #15

    whoops. One cant triangulate with only 2 ears :-)
    I think you know what I mean though….

  16. SJ
    August 17th, 2007 at 17:58 | #16

    rickwood Says:

    whoops. One cant triangulate with only 2 ears

    Actually you can. (Wightman, F. L., & Kistler, D. J. (1994). The importance of head movements for localizing virtual auditory display objects. In G. Kramer (Ed.), Proceedings of the 1994 International Conference on Auditory Displays, ICAD ’94, Santa Fe, NM, 283.)

    There’s all sorts of work being done at the moment to reliably duplicate this effect with multiple microphone/speaker setups.

  17. swio
    August 17th, 2007 at 18:02 | #17

    I have worked in the IT area in two truly multinational companies and have been using international teleconferencing extensively for years. Way back in 2000 we used “bridge calls” (basically telecons) almost everyday to solve IT problems involving teams on three continents.

    I have to disagree with the idea that teleconferencing will displace air travel, at least in the medium term. In my experience we are more likely to see something like what happened with predictions about the paperless office when the fact that printing became so much easier meant paper consumption actually went up rather than down.

    New technology allowing us to work with people overseas more easily simply means there are more reasons for people to travel overseas. When you move a piece of work to Singapore someone still has to go over there and get to know the people doing the work, sign contracts etc. If more and more work is crossing international boundaries more and more people will have to travel to with it to keep it all co-ordinated. Work is moving overseas faster than the rate that technology reduces the need for international air travel. The tipping point is still years away.

    On another point, videoconferencing is a completely overrated technology. Maybe when it runs in full HD resolution and everyone has a spare monitor or two on their desk to waste it will start to have value, but that’s years away. The tools that you need to work effectively with people overseas are Instant Messaging (surprisingly its an absolute must), Telecons and remote viewing software than lets you view another person’s computer screen. With those tools and people who are used to using them you can get 90% of anything done.

  18. melanie
    August 17th, 2007 at 19:57 | #18

    I agree with Roger Jones re using teleconferencing to cut down the number of meetings and with swio re instant messaging (infinitely preferable to email).

  19. greggo
    August 17th, 2007 at 22:17 | #19

    Interesting historical comparison from the corporate vault. Remember the pilots’ dispute in 1989? The disruption to air services which this brought on led to a huge upsurge in teleconferencing and even what would then have been relatively unsophisticated videoconferencing.

    Many pledges were made that, even when the dispute ended, this would continue as it was difficult to justify air fares for meetings in other cities which often only lasted an hour or two. When the strike ended, however, it didn’t take long for old habits to kick in again.

    Will the gradual dawning of the significance of air travel for CO2 emissions eventually change this mindset? Maybe, but probably not any time soon.

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