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5 Ways Telepresence Technology Will Change The Way We Communicate

Technology is rapidly changing, and it’s taking more and more of our attention just to keep up. Whether it’s improvements to existing processes, totally revolutionary inventions, or even patches of old software, these changes are molding what we do and how we do it. Sometimes we find ourselves already doing something brand new before we even realize how innovative it is.

That is the case for Telepresence Technology. While you may not be familiar with the term, Telepresence is the ability to interact with an environment you are not physically in, and we’ve been doing it for centuries, even millenia. But if that’s the case, how is it changing things now?

1. Telepresence isn’t new, but our technology is further developing

We’ve been using telepresence since we started marking caves. Any time we were able to leave some sort of sign of ourselves when we were not there, we were engaging in telepresence. Through time we became better at it, creating signals, language, symbolism and writing. Then we hit what we thought was the motherlode when we created the telegraph, allowing people to communicate over distances in real time. The electric telegraph and the telephone followed long after, expanding the distance, but not really reinventing the concept. Communication was still limited to directing the signal from one place to another.

 However, this wasn’t really the limits of our imagination for how we wanted to communicate. Books allowed us to reach many people, and telegraphs allowed us to send messages in real time over long distances. So we knew we could do both, but hadn’t created the technology for it yet.

 Then the radio was invented, and we once again met our desires in a single invention. Now a message could be sent out in general, and those interested could pick it up, or we could choose to narrow it down to a person. We were no longer limited by technology.

 But we wanted even more. We wanted to actually be there to see and be seen, and this was only one way, we couldn’t see, and we were only heard. So the TV was invented, and then after some improvements of distance again, the Internet and video calling became possible. Since then we’ve created robots and holograms, augmented and virtual reality, and telefeedback, all to enhance the ability to actually be somewhere we are not.

 We even have a presence on Mars, which we can use to interact in a space no human can survive. Our technology has managed to put all our senses together and project us literal Astronomical Units into the universe. So what’s next? It seems now to only be a matter of scope, not ability. For the first time, we can do everything we want, at least in a limited fashion. Where does that leave invention? 

2. Telepresence change the way we communicate

 You’d think after using a technology for literal centuries we’d know how it impacts us, but the jury’s out on most of it. Most people will state a variation of the phrase “it’s just better in person,” but what is the criteria of that? We’re still not sure.

 In the past psychologists and sociologists could point to non-verbal cues, picture clarity, even anonymous behavior patterns to explain some of this unease. But once we remove those, clear up the image, show a fully interactive person, or dare we dream even have an avatar-like robot stand in for us, will we still think it’s better in person?

 Telepresence allows even the immobile to travel the world, and you can go from one place to the next in the time it takes to establish a connection. Put against the negatives of poor connections, poor image, inability to fully interact and other, eventually our technology will improve to the point where those fade away and we’re left with a massive advantage. But since we still don’t know how these kinds of interactions will change people (and they definitely do change behavioral patterns; one needs only to visit an internet forum to see that!) there are many factors that will impact our work. 

 Language fundamentally altered our species. So did writing, radio and all the technology that was listed above. Once the latest technology is adopted will we see a massive shift again, or will we be limited by the experiences of the past? For how many generations?

 And are there realms of this technology we haven’t imagined yet?

3. Telepresence is getting better and better

 Yeah, we’ve all had that Skype call drop, or our networks being spotty, or people forgetting to turn on (or off) their microphones. Poor weather used to disrupt TV signals to the point of no use. Everyone has seen at least one robot tip over and fall, unable to right itself.

 But here’s the thing: while we mention those, someone is creating a better version. Every day we see new improvements, new platforms, new software, new capabilities. While we tease Amazon Echo for laughing randomly, AI systems have started writing their own programs, games and movies. Two years ago I saw an European Space Agency robot try to reply to its own questions before shutting down. This year I sat in a chair and felt my robotic arm in the next room pick up a steel bar three times my weight. Felt.

 There are robots today that can map a building and allow you to wander with colleagues half a planet away. I’ll be putting that to the test later this year in multiple conferences and a month 9 time zones away. We’re no longer bound to the chair sitting in our office, nor to some screen that gets hidden every time someone wants to share a document in a conference call. I regularly work with colleagues all over Europe while sitting ten meters from my bed using online repositories and real time editing programs, including the Google Docs on which this is written. Before I went on vacation last I travelled there using an oculus rift and real time video feeds held by my friends.

 This stuff is real. And it’s getting better every day.

4. Your daily work uses more telepresence than ever

 When I started my career, the Internet had just launched commercially. In school I handed in floppy disks with my work on it; at my first job I was billing customers via email. My third job saw the onset of video calls to providers and suppliers, where I could view products in real time and decide on which ones to order as if I was at their warehouses. By the time I was in my late twenties I was starting my day off chatting with folks in Australia and ending it in Brazil, all smiling and waving to my colleagues on the screen.

 We don’t even blink about it anymore. You are almost expected to be reachable wherever and whenever because you carry a phone that can do all that with the tap of a finger. I’m staring at a screen with an open-editing real time system, six tabs with an online communication storage system, one political forum begging for some attention, and three skype screens from calls to people in Munich, Nuremberg and Warsaw. And that’s just my laptop. My mother is texting me from Portland, Oregon in the USA, and I have regular “meetups” with folks from all over the world on Whatsapp groups.

 I work from the middle of nowhere, a small town in the Netherlands. Yet every day I am also in three different offices in Munich, many more throughout Germany, a couple in the Netherlands and sometimes in many other cities as well. I’m not just there as a message; I can interact in real time with most of my senses, substituting digital signals for sensory ones. I’m learning how to use this more and more to copy function rather than exactly replicate effect. I even have a robot (with an unfortunate currently busted wheel) that I can use to chat with people in the office or at a client by rolling up to them, turning its head and having a conversation.

 This used to be science fiction stuff. Now it’s part of my daily work. And my job primarily involves communicating! Imagine what can be done with your job and the ability to interact with anything at any location, and there is probably right now a technology available or being developed for it that will change how you do your daily work.

5. Telepresence will change how we experience life

 Many of you are probably familiar with humor/discussion sites like Cracked, 9Gag, Reddit, etc. Have you stopped to think how those things are created by content coming from all over the planet? Each person has suffused their humor and jokes into a wider and wider zeitgeist until we all can understand that one does not simply walk into mordor, or that double rainbows must mean something special. We’re present in the lives of people we will never meet, and it didn’t take a book, a show or even great people skills to do it.

 I mentioned the robot above, and it does change how I experience talking with colleagues from over 750 kilometers away. Before when I talked with them, I was a voice coming out of a speaker. With the robot, I can turn to them, even nod my head, and be felt in the room. I’m really excited to see how this ends up changing the dynamic between people who work remotely and those in office.

 This is going to spill over everywhere. We’ve seen it happen with every leap in technology, and with each day bringing new methods and technology, there really isn’t a question of if this will change things, but rather when and by how much. Hopefully, some of that can be up to you.

   by Rick Tracy

What are your experiences with telepresence and to what extent are you using it, especially at work? What do you think are positive or negative consequences of its development? Do you face any challenges with the the new telepresence technology? We would like to hear your personal opinion! Write a comment for an interesting discussion