Songdo, a green sustainable city being built from scratch in South Korea, will be a grand telepresence experiment. How will residents interact when telepresence systems are installed in every home just like an ordinary kitchen appliance?
That vision was outlined by Marthin De Beer, senior vice president of Cisco Systems' emerging technology group. De Beer's job is to invest in businesses that will shape Cisco over the next five to 10 years.
De Beer’s talk at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Technology Conference focused on many of the usual talking points for Cisco: Collaboration, video, telepresence and emerging market for smart grid networking gear.
But the telepresence talk was notable because De Beer kept coming back to Songdo, which is aiming to be a global business hub and a sustainable city. It is also being wired by Cisco. Songdo (right) is being developed on 1,500 acres of reclaimed land in South Korea along Incheon's waterfront, 40 miles from Seoul.
De Beer set the scene:
If you've been to Songdo in Korea, it's amazing what is going on there. Every home will have a Telepresence unit built in like a dishwasher. And it's the developer that is putting those into those apartments as they get built out, because that is how education, health care and government services will get delivered right into the home. It will come to you. You don't have to go find it. And that is how they will reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the cities.
Talk about an interesting Petri dish. How will citizens act if telepresence becomes a daily part of your life? Will they become more productive? Will they ever leave the house? Will healthcare costs drop? Will government effectiveness improve? How heavily will these systems be used?
Cisco pioneered telepresence and counts it as one of its emerging businesses. For corporations, telepresence's return on investment is tied to a travel budget. In theory, travel costs fall dramatically. Meanwhile, other players such as Polycom are also in the telepresence market.
But the technical details and competitive landscape take a backseat to the social science behind Songdo. For now, Cisco has largely focused on corporate telepresence because that's where the money is. De Beer noted that home telepresence may have broader implications.
De Beer said:
Until you've tasted it, it's hard for me to explain to you what it's like. But you can literally sit back on the couch and see your friends and family in life-size, full high definition, right in your living room, and interact with them. It's not a small computer screen. You get a full view of everyone. And it's very different.
But that is just 10% of why I'm excited about it, because the other 90% is that I believe it will do what the browser did for commerce into your home. You used to drive down the street to buy things. Today you go online, and it arrives at your doorstep once you've purchased it.
Home telepresence would do the same for services. Today, you still go to see your banker, your lawyer, your accountant, your tutor, etc. Well, what if these services can come in a virtual model right into your home and you can consume them in that way? And that is what they are doing in Songdo, by the way, and I think in all of these smart and connected city projects that we are in, the same model is going to apply. That then becomes really interesting, because now I can interview and hire a tutor that may be in a different city for my kids, and it's the best possible tutor I can find, three times a week. So when you make these things interoperable and you enable new business models and new ways to consume things, that in itself has inherent value, and we think we can monetize that in a very significant way.
Business models aside, the social implications of the Songdo experiment are notable. Songdo may be able to show us the art of the possible.