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No bandwidth broad enough

Richard Adler, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. | Nov. 12, 2014
Our ability to communicate across distance continues to improve, but will being online ever be equivalent to being there? Should it be?

The future of emotional bandwidth
As technology continues to evolve, will we ever get to the point where being online is essentially equivalent to being there in person? Earlier this year, Facebook placed a big bet on the power of immersive media when it spent $2 billion to acquire Oculus, a small company that has developed a headset that allows users to "enter" a 3D virtual world. When an Oculus user swivels her head, her view shifts accordingly, which reinforces the sense of being in another world. Samsung, the world's largest smartphone maker, has partnered with Oculus to unveil the Gear headset that provides a mobile virtual reality experience with their Galaxy Note smartphones. (The one demo of the Oculus technology that I've experienced involved taking a ride on a virtual rollercoaster. It was quite convincing viscerally, but I have not had a chance to interact virtually with another person via Oculus.) It is interesting to speculate about how Facebook and other tech companies will integrate this technology into their existing services.

Perhaps the ultimate form of telepresence was portrayed in the 1990 film Total Recall, based on a story by Philip K. Dick. In the movie, people who cannot afford to travel to exotic locales for vacations can pay a fee to have a "real" memory of having taken such a trip artificially implanted. Of course, being the movies, one such implantation procedure "goes horribly wrong ... and the fate of the world hangs in the balance."

Attempting to go beyond mere telepresence, which generally focuses on re-creating static, sit-down meetings, a company called SightDeck KC has developed what it describes as a next-generation system that allows people in different locations to see and interact with each other and with dynamic data displays. The company claims that its system will "permit new kinds of collaboration" that will reduce the need for business travel. We shall see.

From telepresence to copresence
Finally, my colleague at the Institute for the Future Rachel Hatch has questioned whether the goal of advanced communications systems should be to provide a feeling of actually "being there." Instead of pursuing "telepresence," which tries to maximize the sense of physical proximity between people, Hatch has proposed that it may be more useful to support "copresence" which attempts to maximize "attentional proximity" -- the ability of co-workers to focus on the same thing (a task or a problem or a dataset) and work on it together. She notes that new kinds of tools are emerging that are intended to enhance the way we collaborate. An example is MindMeld, an AI-based conversation support tool that can "listen in" on a conversation, analyze what is being said, and automatically provide access to resources relevant to the task at hand. The goal of copresence is not just to give a sense of "being there" but to provide an experience that is "better than being there." Even though there may never be a completely satisfactory substitute for being together in person, it may well be possible to make better use of our time apart.


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