BT researchers are working with technology that will make telepresence a virtual reality.
If Keith Cameron's view of the future is correct then businessmen in London may soon be able to 'beam up' colleagues in New York so that they are sitting there across the desk - or, at least, extremely life-like images of them are.
Cameron, Technical Group Leader of the Advanced Media Unit of British Telecom's Systems Research Division, believes that what telecoms scientists call 'telepresence' - a sort of super video-conferencing - will be a reality within a few years.
Although conventional video-conferencing adds a lot to communications, it has its limitations. 'It's not the same as being with somebody,' says Cameron in his cluttered laboratory based at Martlesham Heath, near Ipswich. 'What you're not getting is things like eye contact, gaze awareness, gesture recognition, body language - all those things which are used intuitively to help the flow of conversation and to understand people's reactions.' Telepresence would change all that. BT's researchers think the full-blown system would probably involve a round table bisected across the centre by a large screen. The person conducting the meeting would see the other half of the table and his colleagues on the screen. The trick would be to use very high definition images and a system of cameras which enabled participants to know where those they were talking to were looking, so bringing into play crucial things like eye contact and other visual cues.
The ultimate aim is that the people using the system should, in effect, lose themselves in it, just as in a cinema one loses oneself in what is on screen - one's awareness of the enabling technology is virtually nil.
'If it was done well,' says Cameron, 'you wouldn't be aware of the fact that there was a screen between you. What you really need for good telepresence is a broad-band network. You need a large amount of information between the communicating ends to capture very high detail, very good colour, and lots of movement, everything like gesture and facial expression.' The Advanced Media Unit's job is to speculate on what may be technically possible 10, 15 or 20 years ahead then try to cheat, using existing technologies to simulate the future possibilities. If it can do that, BT can determine what sort of demand there might be for these emerging technologies.
This sort of lateral thinking has already produced a remarkable device called Camnet which allows the user to, as it were, look over another person's shoulder and see exactly what they see.
Camnet works through a pair of headsets - one for transmitting signals and another for receiving them. The transmitting set has earphones, a microphone and a miniature video camera; the receiving one replaces the camera with a screen set into a miniature eye-piece which can be swivelled in front of one of the viewer's eyes.
'It's a remote expert system,' says Cameron. 'The expert sits in one place while the operator, the one with the problem, is out in the field. He needs to communicate his problem back and he needs a mechanism for getting instructions on how to solve that problem.' A vital feature of Camnet is that the communications medium does not get in the way. 'Stick it on somebody's head and it's much more intuitive. Wherever he looks that's the view the expert gets.' Camnet system has already been bought by the Survival Centre in Aberdeen which provides health care for oil companies. The idea is that paramedics at remote locations like oil rigs will be able to transmit pictures back to doctors onshore who will then instruct them what to do.
Cameron thinks other kinds of telepresence devices may be made possible by adapting 'virtual reality' (VR) techniques. It may even be feasible to build what is, in effect, an office-in-a-suitcase. VR uses powerful 3-D computer simulations and lets the user 'enter' the computer-generated images. In so-called immersive VR, things like VR helmets and data gloves (sensors which interpret commands for activities like moving and touching) give the user a particularly strong feeling of being 'in' the picture.
The office-in-a-suitcase user would see his own office projected into his VR helmet. He could then use data gloves to control the images. He would, in effect, be able to walk around the office, pull out files, consult them and even enter new data. The files and things would, of course, be electronic data, but the VR helmet and data gloves would transmute the data into images that were very nearly real to the user.
'If somebody walked into the room,' says Cameron, 'they'd see a guy with a headset on tapping away in space, flicking through documents which weren't there. He'd now be existing effectively in a virtual telepresence world. When he enters this virtual telepresence world he doesn't want to do anything different to how he operates in the physical world. So it's a case of trying to make it as intuitive and natural as possible. That's the key to the whole thing.' Existing VR systems have relatively crude graphics, says Cameron, but even with those users get a very strong feeling of 'being there'.
'When those graphics improve, and they're improving extremely rapidly, these things are going to have social implications beyond anything we can dream of, because, of course, the user doesn't have to be in his office. There's been some inkling of what's coming in the popular press, but I don't think people really appreciate what's going to happen. I can honestly see the situation in which people don't come out of them - they enjoy it so much in the virtual world that they prefer it to reality. It'll be rather like a drug.'
ENTERING THE 3-D WORLD
One of the problems with information technology is that it produces mountains of information, so much sometimes that it is quite indigestible without help. BT's network produces two gigabytes of information per day, equivalent to 16 complete volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
To help control its own network BT has devised ways of transforming network information into an easy-to-understand visual form. The newest is a three-dimensional computer generated model of the network which allows the operator to interact at any point he chooses.
The 3-D network is superimposed over a map of the UK. The operator can, as it were, 'fly' along the system, says researcher Paul Rea. Information is presented to him as he reaches each node (intersection point) in the network rather than seeing everything at once. If the operator wants to investigate any particular event - if, for instance, a signal is flashing suggesting that a particular part of the network is malfunctioning - he can home in and 'enter' the particular location, He can go as low, says Rea, as a piece of equipment in an exchange or even a particular payphone.
The remarkable thing about the BT system is that everything on screen is as it is in real life, so that when one flies down and 'enters' the exchange, for example, one actually moves through 'real' three-dimensional rooms and looks at 'real' 3-D equipment.