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The Past, Present, and Future of Telepresence

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Not too long ago, we would watch science fiction movies containing video communication technology that seemed incredibly futuristic. These days, your office isn’t up-to-date unless you have a comprehensive video conferencing system. Now, communications providers are looking once again to science fiction for guidance on the latest and greatest communications technology: Telepresence.

Hearing voices and seeing faces is no longer enough when it comes to communication. Instead, business leaders want to be able to feel transported to different locations and have physical impacts on their distant surroundings. Telepresence technology is relatively new, but it is accelerating fast. If you want a cutting-edge office, you need to learn about telepresence.

The Telepresence Idea

As is the case with most futuristic technologies, the initial idea for telepresence emerged in science fiction. “Waldo,” a short story written by Robert A. Heinlein in 1942, which contains a basic master-slave manipulation system. Later, in 1969, Fred Saberhagen copied Heinlein with a similar system in his novel “Brother Assassin.” In truth, the term “telepresence” wasn’t coined until 1980, when cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky envisioned a system that allowed a remote participant the feeling of being present in a different location.

Swiftly, telepresence operations began emerging. In 1992, the U.S. Air Force developed the first immersive platform. In 1993, Teleport (renamed TeleSuite) became the first successful telepresence company, selling products that allowed businesspeople to enjoy longer vacations and still attend meetings at the home office. From then, telepresence has grown substantially, and nearly every workplace has some telepresence solution available to connect workers and clients.

Implementing Telepresence

Heinlein, Saberhagen, and Minsky’s true vision of telepresence is nearly fully realized in the telepresence solutions available today. To implement telepresence, technology must unite three of the human senses, vision, sound, and manipulation, and it must do so in an intuitive interface.

Vision and Sound

Unlike traditional television or cinema, which offers a fixed view, telepresence tools typically correspond with the movement and orientation of the user. This provides a field of view similar to what users would observe were they actually present. There are two ways to accomplish this: with large, wraparound screens or with small screens mounted directly in front of the eyes. The former is more affordable, but the latter provides a more realistic experience. Then, with the addition of high fidelity sound and stereophonic sound – both of which have been available for several decades – the connection becomes convincing.

Manipulation

Traditionally, telepresence units are controlled by the user’s hands, but how this is managed depends on the system. For example, some telepresence solutions utilize wired gloves worn by users; others use absolute spatial position sensors. Typically, the method of manipulation depends on what the user is trying to operate, and how much delicacy the operation requires.

The introduction of robots has greatly advanced telepresence systems. Now, users can participate in teleoperation, directly interacting with their remote environment through robotic effectors. Still, the complexity of robots varies greatly, and their effectiveness largely depends on their environment.

Ease of Use

There are exceedingly complicated telepresence systems, usually denoted as “immersive.” Contrastingly, there are so-called “lite” solutions. In the former, the environments at both ends are tightly controlled to boast identical lighting, acoustics, and design. This makes less work for the technology and provides a greater sense of being transported to the other location. Meanwhile, “lite” telepresence options tend to be more affordable and easier for smaller businesses to use, though they may be less convincing or effective at bringing a user from there to here.

Open Source Telepresence Solutions

For most businesses, it is much safer and easier to acquire telepresence solutions from an established communications provider with a history of quality service and support. However, there are a few open source solutions if you are sufficiently enterprising. The web contains several instruction sets for building telepresence tools, but the most impressive is undoubtedly the open source telepresence robot.

Paul-Louis Ageneau has a fantastic instruction set for a complete Telebot. Using 3-D printed parts, an Arduino mini board, a gyro unit, a Bluetooth module, a few motors, and a few more screws, he managed to build a bot that can carry a smartphone from room to room at head-height. The programming consists of writing code to move and balance the robot, building an application to handle the real-time communication over the web, and setting up a server to provide audio, visuals, and control.

The beauty of telepresence is its novelty. While the idea of telepresence has existed for some time, only now are telepresence tools being developed and implemented. Building off Ageneau’s design – or creating your own from scratch – you can contribute to the telepresence movement in your workspace.

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