Make the World Your Office
It could be as simple as negotiating an elaborate business deal — even when you are on the other side of the world; Or, as complex as a chief cardiologist making final checks before surgery for a patient lying in an isolated village 500 miles away; Or, as personal as talking to your children as they arrive home from school — from a different time zone.
In the next few years, a leap in video communications technology will change how we interact, work, and live our lives.
Skype — with 299 million users in June 2013 — and Apple’s FaceTime have already transformed personal relationships, as families and friends are staying in touch from anywhere in the world.
But now, modern telepresence systems have begun to change our professional lives, too.
According to a 2012 Ipsos/Reuters poll, around one in five people in the world frequently “telecommute” to work, and nearly 10% work remotely from home every day.
Companies around the globe face pressure from shareholders and regulators to minimize staff travel and make better efficiency decisions that reduce expenses.
For example, the Huawei TP3200 video conferencing system is designed especially for group meetings by using a specialized “co-optical center camera” to provide the world’s first panoramic telepresence system.
“High-Definition (HD)-resolution cameras and reliable broadband connectivity have vastly improved the teleconferencing experience,” says Jack He Liang, video conferencing director at Huawei. “More people, and especially employers, are beginning to see the benefits of video communication.”
“When you can communicate with your eyes and faces, both sides of the meeting feel more confident.”
Many telepresence systems now utilize what is called BYOD.
“Short for ‘Bring Your Own Device,’” says He Liang, “The system recognizes that many qualified workers already own tablets, smartphones and laptops with cameras.”
The result is a step change in how we see, and carry out, our jobs.
So it is little surprise that, by 2016, global businesses are expected to spend US$ 3.75 billion on videoconferencing technologies. Smart 2020, a study commissioned by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative — found that US and UK businesses can save almost US$ 19 billion of deploying 10,000 telepresence units by 2020.
By cancelling the need for long- and short-haul executive flights between offices, the same study suggested that teleconferencing technologies and other virtual tools could reduce global annual greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by the year 2020.
But that is just the start. The next generation of video telepresence systems aims to fit even more seamlessly into our lives — by adding realistic 3D capabilities.
The Third Dimension
The technology, known as holographic telepresence, is more Star Trek than staff meeting. Instead of a flat screen, a three-dimensional moving image of a user is reproduced at each meeting location.
Currently not a true hologram, the UK technology company Musion adapts the Pepper’s Ghost effect that is commonly used in theatres and theme parks: An HD projector illuminates a thin, effectively invisible, sheet-like “foil” from a 45-degree angle, creating a 3D image almost indistinguishable from an actual person. The Musion TelePresence system can now transmit full-sized people and objects in real-time “without any significant delay in communication,” the company says.
Musion achieved a Guinness World Record in 2012 by helping Indian politician Narendra Modi deliver a 55-minute campaign speech to audiences in 53 different locations simultaneously. And in the entertainment world, Musion was one of three companies credited for the digital resurrection of rapper Tupac Shakur onstage at the 2012 Coachella festival.
Leia Display System is currently working on transmitting full holograms. The Polish company has built a holographic room, measuring ten feet by eight feet, using laser projectors to beam 3D images onto a thin cloud of water vapor. The result is not only a giant 3D multi-touch screen, but also the ability to walk through the images and see them from any point of view.
Holographic telepresence like this has obvious potential beyond the business world. Telemedicine already allows patients to be treated remotely, whether in isolated areas or on a distant battlefield.
Advances in holography are expected in education, film and television programming, advertising, gaming, 3D mapping, aerospace navigation, and robot control.
Still other improvements appear imminent. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US is examining how manipulate physical surfaces with gestures — resizing, reshaping, or relocating objects that are thousands of miles away. This offers the potential for virtual offices, where hundreds or even thousands of people could collaborate on a product without ever touching it.
Researchers at the University of Tokyo are also working on haptic feedback systems — vibrations, for example — by using ultrasound waves for holographic projections. Users touch and interact with holograms and receive tactile responses as if the projected object were real.
In an IBM survey of 3,000 researchers, respondents named holographic video calls as one of the five technologies they expect to see in place by 2015.
There are many obstacles to using these technologies, including cost: Musion currently rents its system for around US$ 65,000. Live telepresence also needs fast, direct connections of 10-20 megabytes per second for highest quality reproduction.
“But thanks to 4G and LTE networks — and 5G coming soon — bandwidth is no longer a problem,” says He Liang.
“Telepresence will mean that we don’t have to work in an office,” he explains. “That we don’t have to travel miles to be treated by a doctor that we can interact with our families from a different country. It will begin to change the world we live in.”
Huawei has released the industry’s first panoramic Tele-Presence System (TPS) that adopts Huawei’s patented co-optical center camera with panoramic gapless imaging and image stitching technologies, to give users a truly immersive experience. It provides open interfaces to interconnect with the systems of other vendors, thereby protecting the customer’s investment. Additionally, it can save up to 30% of the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for the customer because it requires 25% less bandwidth, 42% less energy, and uses 26% less physical space.