Thursday, December 08, 2005

Videoconferencing on steroids

It's hard to say how long the idea of a "telephone" that could carry visual images as well as voices has been around, but experimental implementations of videophones have existed since the early 1960s. Nevertheless, even today ordinary people are unable to buy such a thing that works over existing telephone lines.

But we're getting a lot closer. Elaborate (and expensive) implementations of a slight generalization of the idea, in the form of videoconferencing, have been done since the late 1960s. The idea here is to tie together TV cameras and video screens over some sort of connection with sufficiently high bandwidth that make it possible to hold virtual meetings among a number of people which approximate the experience of being in the same room. The approximations are getting better and better, and are available to any group -- mainly businesses -- that can afford them.

Thanks to the Internet and cheap personal computers -- using inexpensive video cams and broadband network connections -- the functional equivalents of videophones are finally available to the general public. Even if such video chats are not yet quite as simple to use as ordinary telephones. But with the rapid spread of voice over IP just about to happen, we're almost there.

The experience of using such a system is still not quite like being in the same room with others. For instance, one has to look into a camera to give the other person the illusion of eye contact, and in the process losing one's own subjective feeling of eye contact. And there remain problems of latency and lack of smooth motion in less expensive systems.

But things are getting pretty good at the high end:

Together across a continent: Bridging time and place with 'Shared Spaces'
"Modern videoconferencing hasn't worked well as it doesn't allow you to interrupt one another and has never managed to support the quality of interaction that people experience in real life. We wanted to change that," says John Roston, director of Instructional Multimedia Services at McGill University.

"Our technology provides a life-size, high-definition view on a large panoramic screen, which gives users the impression that they're talking to people in the same room with a window between them," adds Professor Jeremy Cooperstock of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.


It's interesting to think about how such systems will impact our lives when they become generally available. For instance, it will become posible to have regular virtual visits with friends and relatives anywhere in the world (subject to time zone differences). We will be able to schedule an evening (or morning, or afternoon) with people we like who live across a continent or an ocean as easily as we do now with friends in the next town. Even easier, in one important respect, as there will be no time wasted in travel. (More bad news for the airlines.)

Will we finally shuck off our thralldom to the boob tube if real, live people we like are as accessible as the latest TV sitcom characters? (The advertising industry will be further devastated.) Or, on the downside, will we discover that our friends and relatives actually aren't as interesting as fictional characters on TV?

In another direction, what will happen with colleges and universities when it becomes possible to "sell" individual lectures by expert faculty members to students anywhere in the world? Will institutions of higher education prosper, or will they flounder as their best faculty go freelance and earn a lot more without the overhead expenses of physical campuses and administrative staffs? Will domestic educators and educational institutions suffer in the same way as other service businesses when their jobs are outsourced to India? What new mechanisms will evolve to certify that students in such a very "open university" have mastered the contents of a particular course?

It's going to be really interesting to watch what actually develops as basic -- and eventually more advanced -- forms of teleimmersion become widespread.

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Update, December 18, 2005 -- Story about a presently-available videoconferencing system: Videoconference system creates boardroom illusion

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