FreshMeat #10: Beaming Up Scotty

FreshMeat #10 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh                  
                \\/  Meat

Three out of three doctors subscribe to FreshMeat!
How or when does technology reduce distance? Increase it?

A recent article in the New York Times describes
a new service from Teleportec – live transmission of
holograms. It’s the ultimate in videoconferencing; rather
than watching on a video monitor, you can see a full-size,
3D image of the person, right in your meeting room.

Cool, huh? And you can have a facility in your office for
only $5000/month, or you can rent offsite for $500/hour.

Teleportec is hoping to sell this to executives (is that
because of the value of the tool, or the price of the
tool?) and real estate companies to do property

A few years ago there was a company called Teleport
(hmm…) developing a virtual dinner table, a half-circle
against a large video screen, so each party would believe
they were sitting at a round table, with half of the
participants being remote.

Like many other products in that category, Teleport sought
to recreate the informality of a meeting, but I believe the
opportunity is in recreating the formality of television.
Although Teleportec seems gimmicky, self-indulgent, and
inappropriately high-end for this economy, they may have
brushed up against that formality.

The best videoconference experience I’ve had was one where
a colleague and I gave a presentation. We had a camera
operator who would pan and zoom between the two of us. We
had a monitor so we could see how we were framed on screen
and moderate our body language appropriately. We even built
a simple backdrop, and when the camera was on, we
performed. We acted like news anchors crossbred with
motivational speakers. It was a total success. The client
believed it was nearly as good as us being there (we
suspected it might have even been better).

The default assumption seems to be that we want to use
technology to simulate reality – that it’s going to put us
right in their office, and it’ll be just like being there.
In fact, it put us right on their office, onto their
television screen. If you’re going to be on television,
make it look like television, and act like you are on
television. That is the context within which your audience
experiences your content (and thus judges it). The frame
shift is from simulated reality to theater. Obviously,
great for presentations, maybe not so good for meetings.

Another story – at the 1994 Computer-Human Interaction
conference in Boston, they set up a video portal between
remote parts of the facility, and left it to see what would
happen. On its own, not too much. People mostly hustled on
by and ignored it.

After a couple of days, I went and stood in front of one
station, and began calling out to the people on the other
end. (Note: This was after David Letterman started taking
his camera out to the street but before Tom Green developed
a middlebrow art form out of this). “Hey you with the bag!”
I’d yell. Most people did their best to ignore me, but some
would stop. So I’d interview them, faux roving reporter
persona and all. I had enormous leeway to break cultural
norms (i.e., act like a jerk), because I was on TV, after
all. Of course, I drew a bit of a crowd, because there was
live theater (better than TV, supposedly) right there!

It seems like the opportunity for the folks developing
these products (and they are ultimately products, not
just raw technologies) is to understand the context, not
simply improve the fidelity. What do people holding video
conferences need to do differently from simply having a
meeting? How can the product better support that?

It’d be pretty exciting to see some of the results that
might come from a fresh approach.


About Steve