The future of remote work feels like teleportation

[A vision of the future of presence in the context of work; this is from The Wall Street Journal, where the story includes a 2:22 minute video. –Mathew]

DORA

[Image: Students at The University of Pennsylvania have created DORA, a robot that both mimics the movements of and sends visual information to a virtual reality headset. Their goal is to give users the experience of actually inhabiting the robot’s body, even if it’s halfway around the world. Photo: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal]

The Future of Remote Work Feels Like Teleportation

Virtual-reality headsets, 3-D cameras help make videoconferencing immersive

By Christopher Mims
May 10, 2015

I have experienced the future of remote work, and it feels a lot like teleportation. Whether I was in a conference room studded with monitors, on a video-chat system that leverages 3-D cameras, or strapped into a virtual-reality headset inhabiting the body of a robot, I kept having the same feeling over and over again: I was there—where collaboration needed to happen.

While they might facilitate communication, telephone calls, chat rooms and even video conferences all emphasize the distance between you and your conversation partner. It is something I hadn’t noticed until I got the chance to play with more advanced technologies. And now I am convinced that the future of remote work—that is, the future of most work—is devices few people have been privileged to try, but won’t want to abandon once they do.

Let’s take this in order of when these technologies will be available. Oblong Industries was started by John Underkoffler, who designed the futuristic computer interfaces in the film Minority Report. Since 2013, Oblong has sold to deep-pocketed clients systems for fully outfitting conference rooms with banks of large monitors, cameras for videoconferencing, software that allows anyone present to wirelessly display the contents of his or her laptop or tablet on these screens, and Nintendo Wii-style wands that allow them to point at and manipulate this content.

Sitting in one of these rooms not long ago, I got the feeling that the Oblong staffers I was remotely collaborating with weren’t somewhere else so much as in a room right next door, and that I was looking through a glass window at them.

This year, Intel Corp. is rolling out its RealSense technology, which gives the cameras in laptops the ability to see and understand depth, just like Microsoft ’s Kinect. Sanjay Patel, CEO of Personify, says he thinks RealSense will show up in tens of millions of notebooks this year, as every major PC manufacturer has revealed models that incorporate it. By the end of the year, it may also show up in tablets and phones.

Cameras that can see in three dimensions have many uses, but one of them is to eliminate the background from behind someone on a video call, as if they were a weatherman or an actor standing in front of a green screen. Personify then takes that isolated video stream of that person and makes it float atop whatever you’re working on in your Windows PC.

The result, as I recently found out, is that you can collaborate with people while talking to them in a way that I’d previously only experienced in person. Each of you can point to content, and you can actually see what you’re working on, rather than having to flip back and forth between a video call and another window. It feels, in other words, like you’re all inhabiting the same space, even if it is limited to the screen of your PC.

Already, Personify is used by three of the five biggest enterprise software companies, mostly for sales demonstrations of their products, says Mr. Patel.

For someone who had never worn a virtual reality headset before, AltspaceVR was a gentle introduction to the technology. Strapped in, I found myself in a room with two other people—only their bodies had been replaced by avatars that looked suspiciously like EVE, the sleek white robot love interest in the movie WALL-E.

One of the avatars started talking to me, and while it lacked facial expressions, I discovered something remarkable—just by virtue of our both having bodies in a virtual space, I could tell whom he was addressing, and I could even read his body language, as his robot avatar’s head tracked every movement of his actual head, even though it was thousands of miles away and, like mine, wearing a VR headset.

With AltspaceVR, the illusion that Personify and Oblong had merely suggested became hallucinatory, in the way that really good virtual reality always does. There was no question that, wherever my body was, my mind was in the made-up room and the made-up body AltspaceVR presented to my eyes and ears. Even the three-dimensional sound contributed to the illusion.

AltspaceVR is in a closed beta for now, but won’t remain so for long, says AltspaceVR CEO Eric Romo. Already, it is possible to bring up any Web page or a variety of three-dimensional content inside AltspaceVR, which suggests all kinds of ways teams might use it to hold meetings and collaborate on everything from documents to virtual prototypes.

“What Personify is going after, Altspace is going after too—someone will get it right,” says Mr. Patel, referring to the market for what people will use in the future instead of awkward teleconferences and video chats.

But even 3-D cameras and VR headsets could be mere milestones on the way to even more immersive forms of teleconferencing.

Last week, I tried out a one-of-a-kind prototype, built by four undergraduate engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania. Imagine a robot that exactly copies every movement of your head. At the same time, through an Oculus Rift VR headset, you see what the robot sees.

The result is DORA, a system that accomplishes a near-perfect version of a phenomenon neuroscientist Henrik Ehrsson calls the “body-swap illusion.” As I use DORA, I find myself thinking I’m inhabiting the robot’s body. As I turn around to look at my actual body, sitting at a desk and wearing a VR headset, I think “who is that guy?”

Already, systems like the Beam “smart presence system” put a screen and camera on top of a simple, remote-controlled stand, creating something like a Skype robot with wheels. DORA is a natural evolution of this concept.

Technologies like Oblong, Personify, AltspaceVR and, in the far future, DORA all do the same thing: Create or capture some part of the illusion that you are in the same place as someone else. Inflection, body language, facial expressions, interpersonal distance and all the information that we can’t convey with current communication mediums come through loud and clear. Given how geographically diffuse our Internet-centric tools have already made many companies, it is hard to see how these technologies won’t someday transform how we work just as thoroughly as email and the telephone did.

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