What is telepresence?

Be everywhere, the Ubiatar claim, is not something so new.

Since 1967 we saw characters of the Star trek universe teleporting almost instantaneously from place to place, often with spectacularly dramatc effects like in one of the latest movie of the franchise:

Even if we do not already have this technology, this is a dream that has always been with mankind and Gene Roddenberry’s creation simply showed us a spectacular way it could be reality in a sci-fi future.

Ubiatar does not offer this kind of service (and this kind of drama!), but shows a way this effect could be delivered with today’s technologies.

Telepresence, as we intend it, is a service where you can see, hear and interact with people and things that are in a different place from your physical body.
A set of technologies which
“allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance of being present, or to have an effect, via telerobotics, at a place other than their true location”.

For example, a japanese lady could physically be in her home in Kyoto and be telepresent in Paris, where she could hear the music from the shop windows of the Galerie Lafayettes, see the goods in them and even examine an umbrella, opening it to then buy it.

She could avoid taking an airplane, waiting many hours of flight, getting an hotel room and all the other problems of a physical travel by just staying in the comfort of her home and use technology to ‘be’ in another place instantly and effectively.

Historically, there have been many ways to try to achieve this goal:

  • Mail
  • Telegraph
  • Chat
  • Phone call
  • Videochat
  • Videoconference
  • Robot
  • Avatar
  • Avatara
  • Physical (teleportation, sci-fi)

 

mail
Mail has been the first way to be telepresent. Not really interactive, but at least your words could be heard remotely (if someone was reading out loud).

 

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Telegraph added more interaction, since your words could be sent almost instantaneouly and you could even get an answer in a matter of seconds. There has been also a way to send drawings.

 

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Chat
is the first example of digital telepresence, using computers (or somputer terminals). Only written words, but in realtime and with immediate answers.

 

Child talking on the telephone --- Image by © H. Armstrong Roberts/CORBIS

Phone calls have been the first audio realtime telepresence. Some experiments with video phone calls even added some visual interaction, but never really succeeded outside of fancy sci-fi movies.


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Videochat
could be labeled as the first real telepresence: you could speak, hear, see and be seen. Not more than that, but still useful.

 

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Videoconference
systems are still in use and offer the best telepresence experience for office meetings. In some products you can even move the camera on the other side. The problem is that at most you can exchange documents and files, but you cannot leave the videoconference room, you cannot operate on remote devices and, in general, the experience is a little ‘stiff’.

 

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Robots
, when teleoperated, are effective and allow humans to explore the depths of the seas, radioactive areas and even space. In this field you can find the famous ‘drones’ that usually can fly and attack remote enemies while you are comfortably seated into an air-conditioned base just north of Las Vegas.
The problem is that these are extremely expensive machines, really difficult to operate, that require extensive training and sometimes more than one human operator. Not something that the average businessman or fashion-seeking lady could dream of using from their home/office.

 

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Avatars
have been seen in a famous movie and in many videogames. The Avatar is another ‘person’ (an alien in the movie), or a character in a videogame, that you control and becomes your ‘other-self’ in the world of the story or the game.

 

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The world ‘Avatar’ come from the Sanskrit word ‘Avatara‘:  (Sanskrit: दशावतार, daśāvatāra)  and refers to the ten avatars of Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation. Vishnu is said to descend in form of an avatar to restore cosmic order.
Like for the gods of Greek mythology, the Avatara concept is that of a superior being that gets a physical body (sometimes stealing one from a human) to operate in our realm.

 

Kirk, Spock and crew get there fast in Star Trek
The physical telepresence is that of teleportation and we already saw an example at the start of this article. Today it is still a sci-fi phantasy.

 

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