Being There: Video conferencing and the future of travel

Illustration by Mark Evans, Seattle Times

I read an interesting article on video conferencing a few weeks ago. It starts with these lines:

“In TV ads in 1993, AT&T pitched a vision of a near-future absolutely brimming with live video communication.

From a busy mom tucking her kids in bed from a video phone booth and a barefoot exec participating in a business meeting from the beach, narrator Tom Selleck confidently promised that “You will!” soon be doing those Jetsonian tricks.

Seventeen years later, the technology is catching up.

The question is whether anyone wants to use it.”

You can read the whole article here. But the gist of the story is that while technology has improved and now iPhone 4 and other smart phones boast of easy-to-use video capabilities, do people really want that? For example, I have Skype and can do video calls with many other friends, some far away. But once I got past the initial novelty of it, most of my calls are still the “old fashioned” voice-only variety. Of course, I text or email a lot more than I call these days, but that’s another story.

As the technology makes video conferencing easier still and as younger generations grow up using such tools, my guess is that we’ll see an increase in adoption of video conferencing, but not in the ways we may now think about it. As the article suggests, it will become more useful perhaps when you can send videos seamlessly when you’re out shopping or on a trip and want to share that view from the Eiffel Tower with friends back home. But what are the deeper implications for travel?

Video conferencing is a good substitute when you simply can’t travel. But I doubt we’ll ever see it replace the need for face-to-face connections. Moreover, I don’t think that just seeing someone (and hearing them) is all there is to connecting with a person. I know from business travel that the moments that make the relationship and that quite often facilitate business the most do not happen in the conference room. They are the small moments over lunch or dinner or in a person’s office or walking to a meeting. You can’t replace those with video for the simple reason that such moments are experiential.

Being someplace in person gives us a full sensory experience of the place and the people. Phone or video give us part of that experience, but not all of it. So until you can “reach out and touch someone” literally, I don’t think we’ll see travel going away. Travel may look different and I’m sure we’ll find interesting ways to enhance our travel with videophone technology. But all the video conferences that may come my way probably won’t be cutting into my mileage plan any time soon. We’re just too, well, human not to derive our most meaningful experiences from actual, physical connections with others. And besides; I can’t get frequent flyer miles sitting in a conference room…

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