Telepresence is still a relatively new and evolving field. At its
simplest it can mean the basic audio visual teleconference many
companies use today.
Going forward it could have major uses in fields such as gaming, virtual
reality and AI. Ultimately telepresence systems might evolve
to use future technology such as holographic generators and even allow
for remote manipulation of objects.
What Is Telepresence?
Telepresence is any technology that allows someone to experience
and interact with a remote location as if there. The "interaction"
element is crucial and is what
distinguishes telepresence from simple passive observation.
That definition is extremely broad - even a telephone could be
considered a simple form of telepresence. Today the term is almost
always used to mean at least simple visual
communication. The standard office videoconference is probably the most
widely used and known form of telepresence.
The limitations of traditional videoconferencing systems will be known
to anyone who's had to endure them. Frequently they involve low quality
images and screens that give
only a partial idea of what's going on the other end. True interaction
is limited to placing a drawing in front of the camera or - if you're
lucky - working together on a networked
PC whiteboard. Communication exists but any feeling of "presence" is
With the rapid rise of dedicated high-speed communications the
opportunity has opened up for telepresence systems to go far beyond
simple video-conferencing. Companies such as
Cisco and Digital Video Enterprises (DVE) are producing
systems that are designed to overcome the limitations of standard
video-conferencing by using large screens and
surround sound. These technologies allow participants
to experience a more immersive meeting and actually feel that they can
perform basic social interaction functions such as making eye contact.
The potential applications of telepresence systems to virtual reality
gaming are obvious. Current systems such as Second Life
do a good job of simulating a virtual
environment, however the immersive experience is still hampered by the
use of screen, mouse and keyboard. Over the years some people have tried
to introduce VR helmets, gloves etc
have tended to be clunky and expensive to buy. If the telepesence
systems currently being developed for the business world
move down into the mass market and become affordable we could see a
whole new level of virtual reality. If that happens then the limiting
factor is likely to be the quality of the AI
which will need to simulate the effects of arritary interaction with the
environment and rapidly give the user multi-sensory feedback.
Telepresence can be - literally - a life saver when it comes to working
in hazardous environments. If the human controller can avoid exposure to
the hazard but instead
observe and direct operations remotely then this is clearly beneficial.
We already have some applications of this such as remotely controlled
bomb disposal and pipeline checking robots.
Obviously in these cases it's essential that control and feedback
mechanisms be fast, reliable and accurate.
The flip side of this is when the operator is not at hazard but the
environment is - medicine. Many operations are already carried out with
the help of remotely operated cameras and
tools however today the surgeon normally has to be in the same room. If
telepresence systems become sufficiently sophisticated then one day we
might see teleoperation rooms
where specialist surgeons can treat patients from around the world
without leaving their office. There is also the potential for doctors to
hold telesurgeries to
assist local workers in remote areas. Not quite an Emergency Medical
Hologram but getting there.
That might sound a
bit Star Trek, but then even videophones were considered the stuff of science fiction just a few decades ago.
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