Accenture always had an interest in video conferencing. Employees debate about the exact date when the first camera and monitor landed in a meeting room, but by most accounts, Accenture has tried to add video conferencing to its arsenal of collaborative technologies since the early 1990s. However, due to lagging technology, video conferencing never resonated as the world’s largest consulting firm might have hoped.

Television monitors, with bad pictures and big cameras mounted on top of them, didn’t cut it. When conversing, meeting participants often had to look straight into a camera, rather than at a person; the camera’s presence would dominate the experience and cause the person to forget what it took to run a good meeting, to collaborate on work projects. “The technology, historically, had great promise,” says Frank Modruson, CIO at Accenture. “But the delivery didn’t live up to expectations.”

Analysts and researchers say Accenture’s experience mirrors that of most companies that have explored the technology in the past.

As it turned out, perfect, crystal clear video conferencing happened only in Hollywood productions. The most celebrated example is Star Trek, in which the captain frequently asked his lieutenants to put an alien life-form traveling in another spaceship “on screen.” But on the planet Earth, amidst the sobering halls of the corporation where the demands of technology can’t be faked, video conferencing just couldn’t cut it. Slow connection speeds and old clunky setups proved unreliable and, in many cases, required hours of IT support for a one-hour meeting.

After many years of promises, experts on collaborative technologies believe video conferencing has finally grown up. The advances could have a huge effect on international businesses looking to minimise travel costs - and the human wear and tear that comes with travel.

Better connection speeds, coupled with the use of high-definition monitors like the kind people drool over on a trip to their neighbourhood Best Buy, have upgraded the experience. The result: While very expensive (some video conference rooms are priced as high as $300,000), the technology could reduce travel budgets and boost productivity by letting people collaborate with one another from the comfort of their home offices.

Remember out-of-sync pictures and sound?

Video conferencing has been around for a while now. Television stations and the military have used it for decades because they had the huge budgets and technical expertise required to install and run it. Commercial video conferencing dates back to the mid-1980s, according to Claire Schooley, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Throughout most of the 1990s, video conferences connected over Integrated Service Digital Network (ISDN) lines. The relatively slow speed of the ISDN lines caused many “packet drops” (this happens when packets of data travelling over the wire fail, or take entirely too long, to reach their destination). It caused a disparity between the sound coming through the speaker and the person’s lips moving on-screen.

“It was all out of sync,” says Accenture’s Modruson. “There just wasn’t enough bandwidth, so you’d have artifacts, and the voices would come from all different directions.” In some cases, Modruson says, it required hours of IT support. As a result, users, frustrated by the cumbersome process, often wouldn’t use it again, resulting in lower adoption rates (the killer of any corporate technology).

Video conferences also donned very unattractive apparatuses. “The old video conference was a camera on top of a TV set on top of a dessert cart,” says Howard S. Lichtman, president and founder of the Human Productivity Lab. When people have a meeting in person, they sit at desks or meeting tables, not dessert tables, Lichtman adds.

Lichtman also says companies paid very little attention to how they set up their meeting rooms, which resulted in very poor audio quality. The echoes of linoleum floors of old office buildings, for instance, sent feedback into the microphone. The televisions were too small for the subjects to feel engaged with their remote colleague. Add in large, obtrusive cameras and Lichtman says the typical video conferencing user became overloaded with stimuli.

“The human brain was having a fight between the distracting medium and the meeting at hand,” Lichtman says.

Video conferencing gets a face-lift

But a few years ago, video conferencing received a boost. Vendors like Cisco and HP, along with a bunch of pure plays, gave the technology a face-lift. They changed its name from the stodgy "video conference" to the more exotic “telepresence,” hoping to reflect an experience delivered in HD where the boundaries between two locations became blurred.

They sped things up by using the Internet Protocol (IP) for voice and audio rather than ISDN as a primary means of connection. Bandwidth increased. They used large flat panel screens in high definition, allowing people to see each other clearly and in life size.

“The quality is now there,” says Forrester’s Schooley. “Sometimes there can be a [slight] delay, but it’s not something the human eye picks up.”

In addition, the Human Productivity Lab’s Lichtman says vendors paid more attention to designing floor plans and specifications for the meeting rooms in which a telepresence session takes place. They first improved acoustics and lighting to ensure good audio quality. Perhaps most significantly, they tried to replicate what a regular meeting room in the Western world looks like.

A typical room equipped for telepresence looks like this: There are three two-person desks, slightly curved and linked together into a semicircle. Like any corporate meeting room, they have comfy (and preferably adjustable) office chairs so the six participants can sit at an equal level. This represents half of your conference table.

Across from the physical desks are three giant flat screens. They are linked together just like the desks, forming another semicircle. The cameras are generally mounted discreetly on top of or sometimes below the screen, but they’re barely noticeable. Microphones are similarly out of the way. Once a video conference starts and the screens turn on, the six participants in the room see six other participants, sitting two abreast at their three desks, in another office with the same arrangement.

When meeting participants arrive, they dial the number on a touch screen phone (often run over VoIP) and the conference is up and running.

At Accenture, Modruson initially installed telepresence locations in Chicago (where Modruson and some of his IT team reside) with another branch office in Frankfurt, Germany. In June of this year, Accenture’s CEO, Bill Green, wanted Modruson to present to him and his executive reports who were meeting in Frankfurt about his latest IT initiatives and what Modruson calls Accenture’s Collaboration 2.0—using the latest collaborative technologies for his globally dispersed workforce. “Normally, when you have the opportunity to present to the senior leadership of the company, you jump on a plane and go,” says Modruson. “But they were in Frankfurt and I was in Chicago. So I would have to leave Wednesday, fly all night and do the meeting in Frankfurt on Thursday, and come back Friday morning just exhausted.”

So Modruson decided to put his telepresence implementation to the test in front of the most powerful users in the company. “The meeting took me one and a half hours rather than three days,” he explains. “Did I save money on a plane? Of course. But I would have been jet-lagged both ways, and in many ways that’s more significant.”

The Cost: Money and people

Modruson says he saved about $5,000 to $7,000 on that trip, if he wants to play the numbers game. But he says the productivity gains from unnecessary travel, coupled with cutting down on the wear and tear that comes with it, really made the modern video conference an attractive option. In November, he says 10 to 12 staff members held a video conference that saved an overseas trip for all of them (and saved tens of thousands of dollars). “We feel a reduction in international travel between cities will more than recoup our investment,” Modruson explains, before adding, “not to mention the qualitative benefits of reduced wear and tear on our people and improved productivity by avoiding long overseas flights.”

That makes sense to Forrester’s Schooley, who says cutting the cost of travel will be the low-hanging fruit for IT departments looking to justify telepresence implementations. While companies can do ROI studies showing the money saved, the real gain will come in the form of increased productivity; if workers no longer need to travel as much, they won’t waste their time in security lines and won’t come back after a red-eye from California or New York bleary-eyed and exhausted.

“Even if you have the iris and the fingerprint to get through the security line, you still might have to wait four hours for your delayed plane,” Schooley says.

Indeed, the nation’s air carriers still struggle with massive delays. According to reports by the U.S. Transportation Department, carriers this summer averaged a 70 percent on-time rate. To a frequent traveler trying to schedule meetings, those aren’t the most comforting odds. Schooley says the younger generation of workers don’t see the same allure for business travel that many experienced in past decades because traveling by plane has become more accessible than ever. As such, they’d prefer to travel for pleasure rather than business.

“This generation likes a work-life balance, and they just won’t stand for standing in four-hour lines if they don’t have to,” she says.

The success Modruson enjoyed using telepresence to present to his executive committee seems to have bought him some leeway. During the next six months, Accenture plans to install high-end video conferencing systems in 11 more locations, including cities such as New York, London, Madrid and Bangalore. While Modruson won’t say what vendor he uses, the installation hasn’t been cheap.

Telepresence offerings from vendors like Cisco range around $300,000 per location depending on the options and quality of the monitors. Other video conference vendors, some of which also have telepresence offerings, include Telanetix, Teliris, Digital Video Enterprises, Telepresence Tech, Tandberg, Sony, Codian, LifeSize, Polycom and Emblaze-VCON.

“They’re not cheap,” says Accenture’s Modruson. “But vendors have thought about entire experience so it’s very immersive for the participants. When you compare that against the high cost of travel and the wear and tear that goes with it, the business case is clear.”

As is your coworker's picture, just across the room - or state, country or continent - depending on your point of view.