If you’ve ever had the chance to experience telepresence, a souped-up variation of videoconferencing that really makes you feel like you’re huddled around the same table in the same room as colleagues halfway around the world, you’re probably well aware that it’s cool in a "Blade Runner"-meets-the-corporate boardroom kind of way. 

On Tuesday, MNN was able to experience this remarkable technology firsthand at a “telepresence suite” at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Our initial impression as we sat in on a pre-briefing simultaneously taking place in New York, London, Dallas and Washington: “Wow. So this is what the future of business looks like.” 

Nifty sci-fi associations aside, a study produced for the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) by Verdantix and sponsored by AT&T found that telepresence also has staggering environmental benefits. Released today, “Carbon Disclosure Project Study 2010: The Telepresence Revolution” reveals that by swapping in telepresence for some but certainly not all meetings (telepresence can’t simulate that deal-clenching handshake at this point) that require business travel, businesses in the U.S. and U.K. can eliminate 5.5 million metric tons of carbon emissions — the same as removing over a million cars from the road for a year — and reap economy-wide benefits to the tune of $19 billion by the year 2020.

While telepresence is still in its infancy and may be foreign to those outside of executive boardrooms of large corporations, the environmental and financial rewards that companies can gain by deploying telepresence — in lieu of racking up frequent flier miles — should not be underestimated. In Tuesday’s pre-briefing, CDP Chief Executive Officer Paul Dickinson said, “something big has happened here.”

And by “big” Dickinson means that if a “big” company with an annual revenue of $1 billion or more deployed four telepresence conference rooms, 900 business trips could be prevented in a single year and, subsequently, 2,271 metric tons of emissions — the greenhouse gas equivalent of removing 434 cars from the road for one year — would be eliminated. Additionally, the company could expect to see a return on investment within 15 months. The study found telepresence to be beneficial in other ways, too, outside of saved emissions and money. Workers who are on the road — or in the skies, rather — less resulted in a more satisfactory work-life balance, improved productivity and speedier decision making (unlike conference calls of old, you can’t exactly tune out in a subtle manner during telepresence).

The findings of the study are based on in-depth interviews with early adapters of telepresence technology: the executives of 15 Global 500 companies. Sak Nayagan, the climate change lead at Accenture, disclosed in Tuesday’s pre-briefing that his company curbed the emission of over 6,200 metric tons of CO2 between November 2007 and August 2009. Accenture, a company where 65 percent of total emissions comes from business-related travel, currently maintains over 50 telepresence rooms in 20 countries after implementing the technology in 2007.

That said, corporations large and small will always have to rely on business travel. Telepresence is as close as you can get to being there without actually being there, if you catch our drift. But as a complement to air travel, telepresence’s eco-perks are astounding.

London-based Dickinson broadcast this resounding thought while he looked at us, in New York, square in the eye during Tuesday’s pre-briefing: “The big deal [with telepresence] is that I’m not actually sitting in the room there with you. And that fact has the potential to change the world.” 

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Telepresence is like being there, only better
Videoconferencing on steroids has potential to lessen your carbon footprint and your frequent flier miles.