Thursday, April 23, 2009

Virtual Presence—A Prognostication Example

Let’s play around a bit with the techniques covered in my prior Blog. My most recent experience is from the travel and hospitality industry. It’s my believe that this industry is on the verge of major tectonic shifts due to changes in travel patterns caused by the energy costs, economic restructuring, and yes, technology. For example, when travel costs rise and the economy tightens, people change their leisure travel habits, and there is a reduction in business travel as more business is conducted via telephone, emerging online meeting means, or via old-style videoconferencing.

Still, anyone who has ever tried to hold a productive meeting via a 25 inch TV screen knows how hard is to detect nuances in facial expressions or to read the body language from other attendees—aspects of human interaction that are undeservedly underrated. The quality of such business meetings usually turns out to be less than satisfactory. Good business communication is about sensing moods, detecting reactions, and establishing the kind of warm rapport that only seamless proximity can provide.

Could there be room here for an emerging technology in this area? I suggest we can try to answer this question by following the prognostication techniques I covered earlier:

· Reinterpret the past, don’t ignore the value of second generation pruning

· Extrapolate what is known and to imagine what would happen if a known element were to become pervasive

· Identify the various technology trends whose trajectories will make them combine in novel ways

· Define a likely frame of reference with assumptions bound by bracketed extremes

Original Videoconferencing can rightly be seen as a first generation technology, something like the Atari was for Videogames, but now technology has advanced to a degree that overcomes some of the original limitations thanks to the use of large high definition screens and better control of the interaction. Clearly, companies like CISCO and HP have already identified enhanced teleconferencing as an area of great opportunity for the future. However, even though both companies refer to their enhanced teleconferencing products as “Telepresence”, what if an economic and effective form of actual 3-Dimensional Telepresence were developed? What I have in mind is something more like the stuff shown in the latest Star Wars movies—something I will refer to as “Virtual Presence”.

Just like with this very important meeting between Ki-Adi-Mundi, Yoda, and Mace Windu,[1], wouldn’t be great to use Virtual Presence in order to avoid having to fly from LA to New York for just a two hour meeting?

If Virtual Presence were to become ubiquitous, efficient, and economical, it could definitely become a transformational technology. The real question is this: How close are we to developing it?

Economically speaking, if past trends are an indication, chances are the initial engine for introduction of this type of capability will come from the so-called adult entertainment industry—especially if Virtual Presence is complemented with technologies intended to enhance sensory experience. There could be the addition of gloves with actuators to simulate the sense of touch, and . . . you get the idea. Smirk all you want, but economics wouldn’t be a problem in that area!

What would be next? Just as travel became a leading application in the early Internet days, its avoidance will surely drive Virtual Presence technology. After all, business travel takes time, money, and energy (in a world that's becoming more aware of energy consumption, this is not a small issue). Also, let’s be frank: business trips are not often as fun or effective as we would all like them to be.

I once participated as a panelist in a conference, answering questions related to the aftermath of 9/11. One of the questions was how I would recommend companies reduce travel. Being a representative from the hospitality industry, my answer was plain and sincere: “please don’t cut your travel, just stay in one my company’s brands!”

Clearly, business travel avoidance is not good if you happen to be in the travel and hospitality business. Now, I know some of you may argue that travel avoidance was precisely the goal original videoconferencing was meant to achieve, but I’m not talking here about dated NTSC TV screen resolutions. Virtual Presence is all about truly replicating the experience of being in the same room with someone who may be several thousand miles away. Compared to that, existing videoconferencing systems are just primitive thinker toys.

To create Virtual presence, we will need a 3D scanner—perhaps a laser-based system that will rapidly trace each participant, digitizing the contour of their bodies and faces in real-time.

Next, we are going to need an extremely fast network to transfer the digitized information generated by the scanner. We will certainly need a very fast pipe to transfer what are certain to be terabytes of scanned data even after compression. Also, in order to rapidly compress this information, we’re going to need a very fast computer. After all, we still won’t be able to exceed the speed of light and there’s just so much information that can be transferred on a sub-second basis.

Fast computers on the receiving end will be needed to decode the scanned images and 3D technology will then be needed to project the resulting image, using hologram techniques, somewhere in the virtual conference room.

Do we really have the technologies to make this happen? Well, not quite yet, but we could be very close…

Huge bandwidth: Take the shift from analogue to digital spearheading novel uses for the telecommunication networks. The first time ever that telephone wires carried more digital data than voice conversation was in 1997. Yet, it took only 7 additional years before, of all the data transmitted across telephone networks, only 3% consisted of voice.

In 1999, Bell Labs was able to transmit 1.65 gigabits of information across a single fiber optic line in one second. This is equivalent to transmitting the entire contents of the Library of Congress in about six seconds. Only five years later, in 2004, a record announced at the Spring 2004 Internet2 Conference was the transmission of data over nearly 11,000 kilometers at an average speed of 6.25 gigabits per second, and in 2007 it went up to 9.08 gigabits per second.

Moore’s Law to the max: hardware costs continue to be driven down

3D holographic display technology is currently being tested in labs

Basic 3D scanners are now on the market and their prices are dropping

Virtual Presence could just be around the corner. In my prognosticating opinion, we should expect real, albeit expensive, applications no later than 2015 (remember when the 50” plasma TVs went for $100K?). So the main questions are these: when will economics allow for its broad deployment? And better: What is the business impact of such a technological development likely to be?

Next week, I’ll go over some thoughts on how to envision the business impact of technology.

Till then!

[1] Okay, as Star War fans we forgive the movies’ scientific inaccuracies such as sound being generated in the vacuum of space, just as we shall ignore the manner in which the teleconference is riddled with static more closely associated with analogue transmissions rather than digital!

[2] As the Future Catches You—Juan Enriquez