Ok, so they didn’t call grandma (although that would have been far cooler than a man waving a red cup which is who they did call), but these researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have strung together a few Microsoft Kinect games consoles to create a 3D video telephone (conference) call – or in tech speak ‘Kinect Driven 3d Telepresence System‘.
Pretty cool, and pretty cheap. And you kind of wonder what would have happened if the Starship Enterprise had access to some Kinects and a red cup to wave at them?
I only partly jest, as in fact the Kinect experiment is very cheap when you compare it to Cisco’s near-teleporting system demonstrated for the first time back in 2007:
The top of the range System 3200 Series, for instance, allows up to 18 people to be seated in the room around a boardroom table, half of which is faced by a curved screen, so it appears that those participating virtually appear as though they are sitting at the table*. Intriguingly, whilst this series products use HD they aren’t yet on sale as 3D or as projections – as our Cisco demonstration above – and are reliant at the moment on screen based technology.
A bit of background about ‘Telepresense’
The term ‘telepresence’ is not that new. It was used by the founder of MIT’s artificial intelligence laboratory, Marvin Minsky, in a June 1980 essay for OMNI magazine. Minsky in turn references fellow MIT colleague Patrick Gunkel for coming up with the term. Minsky’s essay begins:
You don a comfortable jacket lined with sensors and muscle-like motors. Each motion of your arm, hand, and fingers is reproduced at another place by mobile, mechanical hands. Light, dexterous, and strong, these hands have their own sensors through which you see and feel what is happening. Using this instrument, you can “work” in another room, in another city, in another country, or on another planet. Your remote presence possesses the strength of a giant or the delicacy of a surgeon. Heat or pain is translated into informative but tolerable sensation. Your dangerous job becomes safe and pleasant.
He goes on:
To convey the idea of these remote control tools, scientists often use the words ‘teleoperator’ or ‘telefactor’. I prefer to call this ‘telepresence’, a name suggested by my futurist friend Patrick Gunkel. Telepresence emphasizes the importance of high‑quality sensory feedback and suggests future instruments that will feel and work so much like our own hands that we won’t notice any significant difference.
It makes for fascinating reading.
But what to conclude, and what of grandmas?
For technologies to become ubiquitous they generally need, amongst other things, to be affordable. Whilst the likes of tech giants Cisco have shown us what possible, and given us as near to a Star-Trek ‘Beam me up Scotty’ moment as possible without having to re-compile a human at quantum levels, the Kinect boxes show us something more affordable. Something that potentially that grandma (and/or grandpa) could use to see their latest grandchild born hundreds or thousands of miles away, almost as if they were a foot or so away.
*Friends of mine have also created a similar sense of this by placing a laptop screen at the place on the boardroom table and Skyped the virtual person in. So much cheaper.