TED has been an invigorating, sometimes astonishing event since I first started attending six years ago (yes, I missed its earliest “Monterey” days). TED is known for challenging its talkers to “give the best talk of your life in eighteen minutes." More than that, though, it brings a far-thinking group of over 1400 people into one place for almost five days (the core events occur Tuesday-Thursday), and an attendee is likely to find themself comparing notes with people they recognize from magazine covers and news stories (but remember: well-balanced achievers don't want to hear "OMG it's YOU!"). The biggest benefit of being at TED is the conversations you'll have with a broad spectrum of smart people (if the talks themselves are your only goal, save the money and catch them for free at www.ted.com).
TED has used two-way video links since it began running a parallel site some years ago. When the main conference was in Long Beach, California, the second site was in Palm Springs; now that the main location is Vancouver, the second (or "TEDActive") location is in Whistler, B.C. TEDActive runs its own program and schedule, but the main talks are carried live from Vancouver and meshed into the TEDActive program. Short clips of the audience at Whistler, and at other simultaneous mini-TED groups around the world (in some countries, this can be just an office or a home), are seen on the Vancouver main screen from time to time. This year was the first time, however, that three main session speakers had to appear by video.
Last Tuesday, TED brought Edward Snowden onstage for an interview via telepresence robot from Russia (watch the video). Two days later, the civilian head of NSA, Richard Ledgett, responded over a live H.323 video link (watch the video). And in the final appearance of TED's formal Thursday session, Shaka Senghor, founder of the Atonement Project, told his story onstage via a live HD Video link from New York (picture below).
Each of these people were unable to be in Vancouver for a reason: Mr. Snowden's reasons are obvious; Mr. Ledgett because of the short notice; and at three weeks to showtime, it was discovered that Mr. Senghor would not be granted a Canadian visa because of the murder he committed 22 years ago, the one from which he founded the Atonement Project.
The criticality of full-featured communications has moved past the "cheaper than a plane" justification; at TED we saw these three live discussions of global importance that would not have been possible any other way. Having live video connections available to bridge the kinds of issues seen here - political, geographic, legal - enabled the TED organization to concentrate on the excellence and breadth of their program rather than on rescheduling around program holes or working out distracting technological details. I was sorry I couldn't actually have lunch with Shaka, Ed and **bleep**, but I was pleased to have helped enable their participation in what turned out to be a spectacular TED conference.