Sep 19, 2008

Lifestyle - Why video conferencing won't save the world

ONE of the most firmly held beliefs of the green-minded is that we will all need to change our habits if the world is to be saved from global warming. Some of the shifts that these visionaries have in mind seem unobjectionable: being careful to turn off appliances when not in use, say, or taking care not to waste heat for lack of insulation.
But some demands are more exacting. How many people are ready to heed the recent admonition of Rajendra Pachauri, head of the group of scientists advising the United Nations on climate change, to do their bit for the planet by eating less meat? And what about the most controversial green command of all—that wealthy westerners should travel less?
Happily, help with that one is at hand, in the form of “telepresence”, a gussied-up form of video-conferencing marketed by Hewlett-Packard, Cisco and various other IT firms. Their devices aim to overcome the time lags, fuzzy pictures and other technical failings that afflicted the previous generation of the technology, and so hindered widespread adoption.
Green.view can confirm that HP’s system, called Halo, works well. It consists of one half of a conference table, placed opposite three huge plasma screens in a specially designed studio. Callers in other studios appear on the screens in life-size, as if they were sitting opposite. All studios are designed with the same furniture and decoration, to aid the illusion. There are no delays: sound and image are perfectly synchronised. Users can make eye contact with one another across the continents. Sound emanates from the right direction, adding to the verisimilitude. It is not quite like being in the same room, but close enough to allow natural conversation, with all the interruptions, gestures and telling facial expressions that entails.
All this requires very clever gadgetry and huge computing power, and so comes at a cost. HP’s fully-fledged studios cost $350,000 apiece to install, and more to run. Even the scaled-down version costs $120,000. Yet HP claims that most customers will recoup their investment within a year. It calculates that staff travel between cities that do not have Halo studios grew by 3% in the first half of 2008, whereas it shrank by 11% where Halo had been installed. Within the division that manages Halo, whose staff are more aware of the device’s potential, the difference was even bigger. And HP says its clients are managing similar savings.
Halo’s environmental benefits are hard to calculate. The carbon emissions saved vary greatly for each call, depending on whether the participants are ten miles or ten time zones apart. Estimating how much a firm’s staff might have travelled without the benefit of telepresence involves some guesswork. And then there is the question of what they are doing instead of getting on a plane. If the answer involves driving off to a rock concert in an SUV, the emissions saved might not be as substantial as they first appear. Nonetheless, HP alone estimates its staff will take 20,000 fewer flights a year thanks to Halo—a change that must do the atmosphere some good.
But an 11% decline in business travel, though nothing to be sniffed at, is hardly a revolution. HP argues that telepresence’s impact will grow as it becomes cheaper and better known. And so it might. But it also concedes that business travel is not about to come to an end.
Video conferencing, however realistic, can never supplant a visit to the factory floor or a night at a fancy restaurant buttering up clients. People like getting out of the office every now and again, to say nothing of flying to Las Vegas, say, for a relaxed convention.
In fact, HP itself describes the majority of trips avoided as ones that people did not really want to take in the first place. Jerry Seinfeld, a New York comedian, famously took advantage of telepresence to avoid going to Los Angeles while working on a film. Exhausted chief executives use it to wangle free time that would otherwise be spent touring their dominions. HP’s sales pitch hinges less on the environmental benefits and more on the improvement in the quality of life of jet-lagged road warriors.
There is nothing wrong with that. Technologies that reduce emissions are likely to be adopted much faster if they bring ancillary benefits, such as cutting costs or sparing people a visit to a crowded airport. The converse, however, is also true: getting people to do things they do not want to for the sake of the environment is difficult. The gadget that will really change the world, emissions-wise, is the one that whisks people to Paris for that meeting of dubious significance without releasing any greenhouse gases—not the one that prevents the whole trip.