Never mind videoconferencing. "Telepresence" is the new virtual reality

CLIVE THOMPSON

Friday, October 27, 2000

Most videoconferences do not impress Jeremy Cooperstock. In fact, according to Cooperstock -- a McGill University professor who studies communications media -- most videoconferences shouldn't impress anyone.

We all know the drill. You step into your company's special conferencing room. You sit down in front of a camera. Assuming your high-speed data connection works -- and it often doesn't -- you still have to regulate your movements carefully, to make sure you don't sort of vanish off the screen. If you have an automated camera that tracks you by the sound of your voice, it will become totally confused the instant more than one person begins to speak. Sometimes, just for the hell of it, the image freezes up, forcing someone to drag a techie up from the basement to start the whole process rolling again.

This doesn't make for fabulous dynamics. "The social cues we take for granted in everyday life," Cooperstock explains, "are utterly botched by electronic media."

Even so, videoconferencing is becoming increasingly necessary. As companies sprawl across the globe, the need to be in several places at once is greater than ever. As webcams and high-speed home connections proliferate, small businesses and consumers are applying the technology to everyday life. According to Wainhouse Research, a Massachusetts-based analyst firm, teleconferencing equipment was a $588-million industry in 1999 (all currency in U.S. dollars). It is expected to grow to $1.67 billion by 2005, which is a lot of money to spend blasting cryptic images at each other. "An awful lot of people stare into cameras while they do business," jokes Andrew W. Davis, managing partner for Wainhouse.

All of which has produced a boom in a new area -- "telepresence," the science of connecting people in ever more realistic ways. It is, in many ways, the ultimate proving ground for digital media -- because it forces us to tackle both technological and psychological challenges. How do you surmount the social obstacles of distance? How do you make a virtual meeting as rich as the real thing?

In some surprisingly subtle ways. As Cooperstock points out, perhaps the most crucial feature in a conference is sound. "You'll have these systems with fairly good video quality," he notes, "yet the sound almost always sucks." And as any moviegoer knows, sound is a major contributor to realism, maybe even more so than visuals.

Achieving high-quality audio is primarily a bandwidth game -- the fatter and faster the bandwidth, the better your sound. So to experiment with Dolby-quality sound on-line, Cooperstock and a group of engineers at McGill turned to the experimental Internet2. Created by a consortium of 150 universities, Internet2 is a new network that connects the universities with bandwidth that is much faster than the normal internet. With lightning-fast connection in place, the McGill researchers were able to broadcast to Tokyo -- with "extremely rich sound, pretty much lifelike," according to Cooperstock. (Though, at one point, it fell prey to the classic teleconferencing snafu: The video went briefly out of synch with the audio, making the concert degrade into Godzilla-movie lip-synch.)

Cooperstock is also experimenting with sound cues that help participants "sense" the events going on in a conference -- such as playing music when someone enters or leaves the room. This doesn't require any particularly fast bandwidth, but that's precisely his point. Ultimately, Cooperstock thinks telepresence ought to develop ways to compensate for the inadequacies of mediated reality, rather than trying to match actually being there. "I don't think we're ever going to make things as good as real life," he says.

Others aren't so sure. Advanced Network and Services, a non-profit company in Armonk, N.Y., devoted to exploring technology and education, is developing one of the most immersive telepresence projects ever: the "telecubicle." The initiative is headed by none other than Jaron Lanier, the 40-year-old programmer who originally coined the term "virtual reality." The device, a demo of which is already being tested at Advanced's labs, looks like a regular cubicle, except the walls are replaced by screens displaying your remote colleagues.

The challenge in building a truly immersive environment, Lanier says, wasn't merely in getting enough bandwidth (though his project also uses the elite Internet2). The greater problem was that existing display technologies -- screens, cameras and the like proved to be inadequate, so they're engineering new technologies from scratch. To produce 3-D without requiring traditional virtual-reality goggles, they created special flat-panel monitors, which create 3-D by alternately directing the image into either eye of the viewer. The telecubicle will also track your movements, adjusting the 3-D display so that you get the same visual effect no matter where you sit.

The end result? It's sufficiently realistic that test users have momentarily forgetten they're using a mediated tool they just start chatting and gossiping with the other remote participants. Which is the whole goal: to achieve that moment when the psychological barriers of videoconferencing vanish. "That's when you can tell a technology has become transparent, and that's the goal," says Lanier. "You don't want people paying attention to the tool."

Possibly. One other movement in telepresence offers a decidedly non-transparent approach: sending a robot to take your place at a meeting. This spring, the Boston-based iRobot Corp., which has made robots for military use for a decade, is entering the commercial and consumer market with its eponymous iRobot. It's a two-foot-tall machine with a built-in camera, microphone and speaker. The idea is to plug your robot into the net and leave it at the office. Then, when you need to drop by a meeting remotely, simply log into your robotic counterpart (or "robot in") and then glide it around the conference room, hearing and seeing what's going on, and speaking whenever you want.

The iRobot makes no attempt to look human. Quite the contrary -- with its squat body and swanlike neck, it looks something like a mutant, killer vacuum cleaner. But it does something that no ordinary videoconferencing can do -- it gives you a physical presence in a remote location. People at head office not returning your calls? Activate the robot and go hunt them down at their desk. "There's no other way someone can be, physically, in two places at once," says iRobot president Helen Greiner. "There's e-mail, there's chat, there's the phone, but we're at the pinnacle of that." Take this to the extreme and you get a rather gorgeous spectacle an office filled solely with robots wandering around, as the entire staff logs in remotely.

But how realistic is this? Telepresence is a new field, so don't expect to see a telecubicle or Dolby-quality on-line audio in your office any time soon. The technologies that create superfast, Internet2 bandwidth are still experimental, and won't be easily available to the commercial sector for at least another five years. And even then, will the best virtual reality be able to top real, um, reality? As all top executives know, there's nothing quite like being there in the flesh. When Apple executives decided to reward Steve Jobs for helping turn around the company, what did they give him as a gift? A robot? A cubicle? No, it was a GulfStream V jet.