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From telepresence to video conferencing rooms: the future of meetings


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It’s so easy to jump on a video conference today that it’s become an everyday part of many people’s work and personal lives. So it’s hard to believe that the technology began with fits and starts, and was even once prohibitively expensive, complicated to deploy, and in its early days, a colossal commercial failure.

AT&T first introduced video conferencing at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. People were fascinated by the Picturephone technology and waited in long lines to look into a small black-and-white screen on a megaphone-shaped device to video chat with strangers at Disneyland in Los Angeles.

When the commercial service was introduced that same year, it cost $16 for a three-minute video call from New York to Chicago. The company predicted mass adoption, but the invention was a flop. AT&T spent $500 million on Picturephone research and development from 1966 to 1973 with not much show for it.

Introducing telepresence

Fast forward to four decades later, and Cisco in 2006 introduced telepresence, high-end HD video conferencing equipment that was touted as a game-changer for businesses.

The expensive boardroom equipment, which included large flat-screen displays, custom lighting, and acoustics, took advantage of broadband speeds to provide an immersive, high-quality 1080p video experience that made it appear as if people in two separate conference rooms were sitting face-to-face from one another.   

Telepresence rooms were expensive to build with the technology costing between $34,000 to $340,000 in its early days. Cisco still sells telepresence systems, but sales tanked after an initial burst of interest.  

As a result of being too cost-prohibitive, telepresence systems never truly became the revolutionary technology people expected. Professionals still preferred face-to-face meetings, business travel increased, and the world resumed business as usual.

A new generation of video conferencing

Video conferencing technology has evolved over the years. No longer is video conferencing limited to corporate meeting rooms that require expensive, state-of-the-art hardware and IT staff to configure and maintain. 

Today, a combination of mobile devices, cloud-based video conferencing services, new hardware systems for meeting rooms, and the availability of faster Internet access has made video conferencing more affordable, easier-to-use, and widely accessible.

For example, during the past two decades, laptops technology improved dramatically, with built-in HD webcams, better processing power, and the memory necessary to produce high-quality video and audio.

In recent years, video conference hardware providers have also created a new generation of low-cost, easy-to-use, and easy-to-install video conferencing equipment for meeting rooms. Instead of expensive telepresence equipment, companies can use the new lower-cost hardware or even their laptops to hold video conferences in meeting rooms. Remote workers can also easily join meetings from anywhere.  

New ways to meet

Amidst the COVID-19 lockdowns, cloud-based video conferencing services have allowed millions of workers to continue to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues, clients, and customers. But while most businesses weathered the storm thanks to video conferencing, things are changing fast.

Only 37% of jobs in the U.S. can be performed fully remotely, while the remaining 63% require significant on-site presence. Even with fully remote positions, many organizations aren’t taking the plunge immediately. A study by PwC found that 72% of employees want to work remotely just 2 days a week, preferring to work in the office most days of the week. 

What this means is that moving forward, organizations are planning more flexible work arrangements that allow employees to work both on-site and off-site. At the same time, many teammates might also be permanently remote, creating a wedge between teams.

Communication and collaboration need to take on new forms in the office. Meeting rooms were effective when every employee worked in the same office, but teams are getting fragmented as COVID-19 ensues. Meeting rooms need a facelift to meet the remote-work needs of the post-COVID workplace. That’s where meeting rooms transform into video conferencing rooms.

Video conferencing rooms are the future

In the early 2000s, video conferencing hardware was often complex and kludgy to use, which halted widespread adoption. In contrast, video conferencing rooms today are plug-and-play, and allow employees to launch video conferences with a single click. 

They’re not designed for complete immersion. Instead, they’re more like a hybrid between the massive telepresence systems of old and video conferencing on a laptop. They get the job done without requiring any dedicated IT infrastructure or expertise, making them suitable for any type of meeting room.

For many organizations, packed meeting rooms are a thing of the past. Organizations will need to facilitate the same levels of communication and collaboration with distributed teams as they had in physical offices. That means bringing groups of people together regardless of location.

RingCentral Rooms is a cloud-based video conferencing solution that provides an HD video conferencing room experience—without the expensive equipment. Employees in an office meeting room can launch a video conference with one tap of an iPad, connecting both office and remote employees by simply dialing in. All employees need to do is begin speaking to collaborate.

Learn more about video conferencing rooms in the post, “What’s the future of the meeting room?

Originally published Aug 28, 2020, updated Jan 18, 2023

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