Telepresence: virtually as good as being there

This topic – telepresence – started knocking around in my head when I walked into a business meeting almost a year ago in Kirkland, Washington. A wall-sized (literally, exactly, one wall floor to ceiling, side to side) picture showed a room the same shape as the one we stood in. People walked into the room and sat down.

They were in Silicon Valley.

The other participants were the same size as we were, and they had feet as well as torsos and legs. This matters; a lot of virtual meetings I’ve been in have ended up as conversations between me and disembodied heads.

This does not feel like being in the same room with people.

But the other people in this meeting looked and sounded natural enough that it was hard to remember that we were in different states.

Shortly after that meeting, I was at the FiRE 2009 conference in San Diego, and one of the more interesting conversations I had there was with a Cisco executive about telepresence.

So here’s a one paragraph primer on telepresence:

Let’s start with a working definition for the purposes of this article, and suggest that telepresence is any set of technologies that makes one to many humans feel like they are in a physical place where they are not, or like someone who is physically distant is not. This definition applies to sophisticated video conferencing systems. It also applies to rich virtual reality environments that result in meetings between avatars that feel like meetings between people. It also means a person can be in one place, and physically manipulate an object in a different place.

Eventually, it might be simply such a high quality video phone experience that I will be able to use a handheld phone app and talk to someone around the world with good enough audiovisual for the conversation to seem real. This was actually the breakfast chatter – how in the future we will be able to communicate deeply across distances pretty easily.

After thinking about telepresence for a while, and doing some research, I’ve come to the conclusion that the right forces are aligned for success in the near term:

  • Richer distance communication imparts high actual value. Much of our communication is in body language, subtleties of voice, and the physical context of a conversation. That’s why email is an awful way to communicate emotion, and today’s telephone is only a little better.
  • Telepresence is a time saver. A busy executive or doctor needing to meet with 5 people in one day can do that even if those five people are in completely different places on the globe.
  • Virtual meetings are good for the planet. The carbon burn of virtual meetings is lower than the same burn if the executive referred to above had to take 6 different flights (one to each of the five people and one back home).
  • The technology is clearly getting there. I’ve seen it. Good systems are not yet cheap, but I believe they are poised for a significant price fall that will place today’s mid-range systems into typical human hands for a few hundred dollars.
  • There are serious players and competition in the field now. For meeting technology, there is Cisco, Teleris, Polycom, GlowPoint, etc. In virtual worlds, Second Life, Project Wonderland (Sun’s open source) and the brand new Blue Mars offer a sort of competition, although Blue Mars is reportedly more different from Second Life than the user experience of Polycom is the Teleris.
  • Whether it’s SARS, the flu, Mexican drug cartels, or restless Jihadis, at least the perceived risk of travel is higher. The hassle factor is also certainly higher (don’t you love the practical strip search that accompanies airplane travel these days?)

Put all of these factors together, and we are pretty likely to hold a lot of our meetings using the computing cloud rather than airplanes.

Some Articles for Your Contemplation:

Science Fiction and Telepresence

The first kind of telepresence I talked about – better meetings – is already such a standard trope in science fiction that stories are not about it. It is simply a background element of most of the technological futures any of us write about. The idea of remote operation of machines has been central to a few stories lately. Thanks to David Levine for pointing out “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” by Ian McDonald. I found it in Fast Forward, and it was also reprinted in the twenty-fifth edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, (Gardener Dozois, ed). An older story is Mike Moscoe’s Nebula Award nominated story from 2000, “A Day’s Work on the Moon.”

What are your favorite stories that are about or heavily feature telepresence?

Also, please feel free to comment if there is a topic you want to challenge me to pick up for one of my columns here.


Brenda Cooper’s next science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, will be out from Tor Books in November 2009. For more information, see her website!

One thought on “Telepresence: virtually as good as being there”

  1. Check out Teleabsence by Michael Burstein (Analog 1995; online at fictionwise). It was his debut story and nominated for a Hugo.

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