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The future of telepresence: holograms and robots

If you’ve ever tried one of those telepresence centers deigned to create the illusion that the people on-screen are actually sitting at the same virtual table, you already have an idea of how far teleconferencing has come. The next step: holograms and robots, apparently.

So says a press release issued yesterday from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which have pitched in to create the BeingThere Centre, an international R&D program for developing new telepresence and telecollaboration technologies.
 
The $18 million venture – which is being funded by all three groups, as well as the Media Development Authority of Singapore – “will boast a team of 32 top scientists across three continents embarking on joint R&D projects to develop four prototypes of the telepresence system of the 21st century”.
 
The prototypes include a wall-sized version of telepresence rooms – where the entire wall becomes a virtual “glass wall” between rooms in different locations – and a mobile display that creates “a 3-D graphical representation of one person in a distant location to a place that is controllable by both users” and “will bring the illusion of the other person being present in a room, laboratory or hospital.”
 
Also in the works:
 
… a mobile robotic mannequin that acts as a remotely located "avatar" that could freely navigate a distant environment and take on the appearance and gestures of its far-away human host; and an autonomous virtual human with memory and awareness capabilities that can take the place of its host when he or she is absent.
 
Nifty!
 
How far away is all this from becoming commercial reality? Not as far as you might think, at least in terms of the technology. This month’s Technology Review includes a test drive of a telepresence robot from Vgo Communications that allows you to walk from office to office and talk to whoever you meet. (The article is subscription-only, but unembeddable video is available here.)
 
However, the reactions from co-workers – and the difficulties of navigating the robot – suggest that it may be a long time before enterprises see a need to invest in this kind of technology.
 
And that’s before we get into the cost issues. Today’s seasoned telepresence centers are not cheap to install and run. Even the public telepresence centers offered by the likes of Tata Communications cost at least several hundred dollars per hour. That probably won’t be a barrier for early adopters, and you have to start somewhere, but telepresence at this level of sophistication looks likely to remain a corporate luxury or a government indulgence for a long time at best.