So who hasn't dreamed of instantly being able to beam yourself from one place to another?
This morning I stumbled across a series of posts, podcasts and videos that got me thinking that this may not be as far away as we might seem. Now, before we get too excited, when I have said that in the past, it's been seven to 14 years later that the idea has actually reached mainstream.... but this time I think we've jumped ahead a little.
They used to say war was one of the biggest stimuli for technological advancement. I think, thought, the COVID-19 pandemic might have had a very similar impact, through simultaneous mass-disruption and focus.
My feeling is that since multiple aspects of our lives have been disrupted simultaneously, a vast number people have found themselves becoming Lockdown Entrepreneurs and so many industries and governments have found themselves in uncharted waters that we may be just about to hit warp-drive on technological advancement. My conservative estimation is that from a technology point of view, we may have jumped two, three or even four years into the future already, and telepresence is going to be one of the areas we see huge leaps.
The Building Blocks
What I'm looking for in telepresence is more than a video call, it's being able to interact with a distant environment, to sense my surroundings and have other people notice and interact with my presence too.
For this to be real, we need some basic building blocks in place.
To interact with something remotely, we're going to need to be able to connect across distances in a way that doesn't get in the way of my perception of that place. That means connectivity that can deliver vast amounts of data reliably, with imperceivable delays. 5G promises to provide the very high bandwidth and super low latencies that this requires, we just need to get coverage and international roaming built, but that's all very much a work in progress already.
Realistic Digital Avatars
There are a number of digital 'alternate worlds' that already exist, and a number of companies that enable us to create digital avatars of ourselves, and whilst these are fun, I feel the bubblegum-marshmallow-ness of many of them is going to be a barrier to creating meaningful business relationships.
That's why I found this video particularly interesting. Here the headset is not only providing the immersive VR experience, but also capturing the facial characteristics for use in your digital avatar.
Digital avatars will provide digital alternate worlds a new level of realism and attraction for those people who don't really want to bounce around the place like something out of Ugly Dolls. There are already digital worlds that are being built in 4K, delivering a visual experience that is difficult to distinguish from the real-world. Add to that photo-realistic human (and animal!) avatars, and things are already going to be a step change. Add to that additional sensory stimulation such as touch, warmth and even smell, then the whole thing goes to a new level.
Until we get to a virtual world with realistic avatars and multi-sensory stimulation, robotic avatars will be our next stepping stone. These will allow us to "inhabit" a robotic form to move around and interact with a remote environment.
To some extent, these already exist, but the barriers to adoption are still too high and the level of human integration too low. Currently you can find remote controlled vehicles for interacting with environments (a bomb disposal robots and industrial robot would be good examples) but for the full experience, I want to be physically in, and interacting with a remote place.
One of the companies making real progress in remote robotic avatars is Telexistence in Japan
The work Telexistence is doing looks very exciting, but personally, I still think we need a human face on the robot. I think one of the things COVID has taught us is how scary people can look when their faces are covered (with masks), so indeed, if Telexistence could leverage the work shown in the video above, it would make these systems much more approachable - which is important if you, as the avatar, want to be able to interact with other humans in a close-to-normal-as-possible way.
Telexistence is not the only company working on these systems, there are quite a few others, too. However, the market is quite siloed and proprietary. It reminds me of the times when Cisco dominated the nascent video conference market.
At that time, you could only have a video call between parties using the same systems. Calls had to be carefully scheduled, choreographed and were often quite expensive. I remember I had a 6 hour video call interview once, more on that another time.
For this to take off, we need platforms from different vendors that can talk to each other, open robotic avatar platforms. One company I know working in this space is Cyberselves, a start up out of Sheffield University, UK
Cyberselves have created a technology that solves what they call "sensory modality", which essentially means that every robot platform has different sensors that are connected, controlled and monitored in different ways. That means if you are trying to create an application that works across lots of different robots, it is almost impossible (or just very expensive).
By unifying the sensors through a single, standardised layer, teleport applications can interact with a much wider range of robots on the other end.
Further Sensory Augmentation
Many of these platform are integrating sight, sound and touch (albeit limited to "haptic feedback), but for the full experience I think we'll need additional sensations too. Especially important will be the sense of touch beyond haptics, eg, warmth, the sense of a breeze.
We use our sense of smell and taste more than we imagine, so these will be an important elements to complete the remote experience. Digitally recreating aromas is still proving to be a difficult junction between chemistry and technology. At the time of writing, there seem to be few companies focusing on the digital production of scents and aromas, with Olorama in Spain being one to watch. Additionally, there are several companies building technology to capture scents, like Volatile
The Future Of Travel?
Digging into the funding of Telexistence, in 2018 they raised £2.25M with the innovation funds of KDDI and Airbus being two of the three investors.
Of course, when you can travel to your conference or business meeting as a robotic avatar, the aviation industry might suffer a further COVID-like drop in passenger numbers, no wonder Airbus wants to be part of that!
What do you think?
How would you feel if your suppliers turned up in robot form rather than in person? Would there be a minimum distance where this would be more acceptable, for example you'd expect people to turn up in person if less than an hour away, but anything further and a robot would be tolerated? Is there a value element to it, for "big" deals, would you expect to do this person-to-person?
What about travel? If you could explore Rome from the comfort of your home, or perhaps a specialist location near your home, would you? Would it depend on just the price, or would there other factors that would make you choose the robot vs the flight?
Are you a company working in this field? I'd love to know more. Do get in touch.