Friday, June 12, 2009

Videoconferencing to Telepresence: So far, and yet so near

When is Videoconferencing indistinguishable from Telepresence? Serious question. To some extent the attempts at making distinctions remind me of the arguments in the Information Systems community in the 1980's and 1990's: what's the difference between Data Processing, Management Information Systems, Decision Support Systems and Executive Information Systems (and it goes on .... currently we're talking Business Intelligence)?


At least to some degree, the change in nomenclature is an attempt to improve the marketability of products. A term is in vogue for a while, and then begins to show signs of becoming stale. New terms begin to emerge on the fringes of public discourse, often coined by so-called thought leaders -- academicians, consultants, writers, publicly prominent persons. Frequently the thought leaderss develop or refer to new philosophies and perspectives and the newly coined term is an attempt to capture that new vision in the form of new technologies. Vendors of technologies waste no time in jumping onto the bandwagon, sometimes as way of promoting the new technologies they have developed, but oftentimes through a merel relabeling of their existing offerings to fit in with the new Zeitgeist.

But is telepresence any different from videoconferencing? From what I can tell, telepresence is videoconferencing done right; or maybe telepresence is what videoconferencing always intended to be, but couldn't because the technologies were still in their infancy. As the component technologies began to mature it became possible to focus on the goals of videoconferencing rather than trying to get the technology to work. A good analogy is a comparison of computing in until the early 1980's versus computing after the advent of the Apple Macintosh in 1984. Computers were tools accessible primarily to the technologically adept who enjoyed using them for their own sake. The graphical user interface (or GUI) based Macintosh opened the doors to the vast majority of people who could now interact with computers while focusing entirely on their own tasks rather than trying to think in terms of the underlying technology. The Mac's GUI attempted to mimic the physical, non-computing world in which people normally operated, thereby making the use of computers as natural as anything else they did. Likewise, early working videoconferencing systems provided the basic technological components -- data/voice/video networks, video cameras, displays, and so on -- to connect people who were remotely located. Using the system was not the most natural of things because the video or audio transmission could be choppy or the voice and video might be out of sync. Other technical difficulties would emerge from time to time reminding users that this was a technology that was not quite mature. The rapid growth of the world wide web made desktop videoconferencing possible, with CU-SeeMe developed originally at Cornell University to run on the Apple Macintosh being one of the pioneering such systems.

The major limitation of videoconferencing -- both desktop and the regular kind -- was that it reduced human conversations to the process to displaying talking heads of each set of participants to others. The process was quite unnatural and felt as such -- like talking to a TV. In some instances, the process was painful to experience, often requiring participants to inject pauses, direct explicit attention to others through invoking their names and so on. A videoconference was -- and in many ways still is -- far removed from a real face-to-face conference where well-established social interaction processes of dialogue, conversational turn taking, using body language to signal attention, understanding, agreement or otherwise, turning one's face towards specific individuals in order to signal a request for attention and so on were largely absent. Nevertheless, having a means of seeing each other where none would otherwise be available (when such a thing helped interaction and disambiguation) made videoconferencing a viable, if unsatisfactory, compromise between the limitations of interacting entirely through text (email) or audio (phone conferencing) and the costs and effort of physically traveling to other locations for meetings.

The very term telepresence acknowledges the need to create a sense of presence of people, and make it feel as natural as possible rather than providing a means to see and hear others. Telepresence goes beyond seeing and hearing, and attempts to create the appropriate feelings associated with having others in one's presence. Businesses appreciate the soft benefits telepresence delivers:
Executives are able to conduct interviews on large HD plasma screens, enabling them to clearly read body language during interviews and evaluate a candidate's character. When they ask tough questions, they can assess the candidate's reaction.
Physicians too, are able to better judge the needs of their patients by being in their presence rather than merely by poring over reams of data:
Clinical e-Health Services, for example, operates a network of systems that allows Keldie and his team of clinicians to communicate with one another; they can also provide both specialty and primary care to consumers without having to spend time and money on travel. "You have a growing need in these facilities for more fundamental medicine, such as managing diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. Our telemedicine network allows us to leverage a pool of primary clinicians to provide care without forcing those physicians to physically commute to that location."
Just as the GUI was the result of applying principles of cognitive psychology, linguistics, and other related disciplines to the design of personal computers, the technologies of telepresence are (or ought to be) based on ideas and principles drawn from anthropology, social psychology, sociology and related disciplines. Traditional (pre-GUI) computing was almost pure technology with only limited attention paid to the needs of the vast majority of people for whom technology was merely a means of accomplishing a goal. Likewise traditional videoconferencing was a purely technological solution to the needs of human-to-human interaction across space. In both cases, once the fundamental technological problems were worked out and the technology became sufficiently mature and powerful, it could accommodate the incorporation of features and facilities that actually supported human-centric and goal-centric rather than technology-centric processes.

Telepresence research is interesting because it melds knowledge from varied disciplines: engineering, social sciences, arts and humanities. It is this interdisciplinary approach followed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center that resulted in the development of the GUI and a similar -- and likely far more challenging -- interdisciplinary approach is needed to bring us the equivalent breakthroughs in telepresence.

While applications for telepresence involve just about any situation that traditionally involves the coming together of people physically, I am greatly interested in its use in education. One of the world's but especially of India's greatest challenges is bringing education to the hundreds of millions that have been deprived of this most essential of ingredients for a functioning democracy. Education often is viewed by those outside the field as the mere delivery of information (which is sometimes erroneously conflated with knowledge). Educators know, however, that education is very much a social process that involves close emotional links and interchanges between teachers and taught. Quality education requires great sensitivity and understanding on the part of those who guide the learning process and this is possible only in a context where social context of education can as closely as possible mimic physical presence. I look forward to the time when outstanding educators can bring the benefits of their valuable skills to students in distant places thereby alleviating the class hierarchy that currently exists between the Big City and the hinterland. All citizens, regardless of location, deserve good education if for no other reason than because their politicians sought their votes to get elected. Perhaps advanced telepresence systems will make that possible not too long from now.

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