Telepresence technology transforms video-conferencing and cuts carbon emissions

In the past, video-conferencing has been notoriously problematic, most notably due to audio and visual delays that give a jerky picture and mean that when you crack a joke you'd better be prepared for people to start laughing halfway through your next point. New video-conferencing technology or 'telepresence', on the other hand, is life-size and crystal clear. It is so lifelike in fact that when the person on the other side of your 'virtual' meeting walks to the edge of your on-screen field of vision, you half expect them to pop out into the room.

State-of-the-art video-conferencing facilities like these were used at COP15, the UN's climate conference, at the end of last year. The purpose was to support international communication and improve access, making the talks fairer and more open. By enabling people to avoid travelling to the conference, the facility, run by Cisco Systems, also helped to reduce the conference's carbon footprint.

Neil Harris, head of environment for Europe at Cisco, emphasises the need to combine these new systems with processes that maximise their benefits.  He said: "Culture, process and technology all have a role to play in enabling this new way of working, which not only helps drive innovation and increase productivity, it is also arguably more suited to workers, as they are given an opportunity to work on a wider range of business priorities or areas based on their individual skills and experience."

But as well as helping to minimise travel and improve employee access to opportunities, how far will this new technology take us? Paul Dickinson, CEO of the Carbon Disclosure Project, thinks the technology has the potential to be transformational. He runs a charity responsible for making corporate environmental data transparent to investors, customers and other stakeholders, and believes that telepresence is at the heart of a transition to a low carbon economy.

Speaking at the UK Trade and Industry event in Copenhagen, he said: "We are the last generation to do this ridiculous amount of travel. Large scale deployment of telepresence could mean a huge decline in the physical use of offices, with people working virtually, from home or close-to-home locations, and interacting with colleagues on screens that are always on, giving a real sense of working in proximity."

We aren't quite at the point of waving goodbye to our offices. It is clear, however, that telepresence technology has the capacity to not only save money and emissions, but also deeply transform the way companies work. 

Jane Burston is director of Carbon Retirement