While at Microsoft last week, Gina Venolia introduced me to George. Well, not literally, as he wasn’t there, but I met his proxy. Gina and co have been experimenting with how to make a remote team member feel part of the team, without the frequent travel, in the Embodied Social Proxies project. The current prototype kit comes pretty close to getting that sense of presence (Gina also has a great talk on this project):

The kit cost about $4000 to put together, and includes:

  • a monitor for a life-sized headshot;
  • two cameras – a very wide angle camera to capture the whole room, plus a remote control camera to pan and zoom (e.g. for seeing slides);
  • noise canceling telecom unit for audio;
  • adjustable height rig to allow George to sit or stand;
  • and of course, wheels, so he can be pushed around to different workspaces.

Now, the first question I had was: could this solve our problem of allowing remote participants to join in a hands-on workshop at a conference? At the last workshop on software research and climate change, we had the great idea that remote participants could appear on a laptop via skype, and be carried around between breakout sessions by a local buddy. Of course, skype wasn’t up to the job, and our remote participants ended up having their own mini-workshop. I suspect the wireless internet at most conferences won’t handle this either – the connections tend to get swamped.

But I still think the idea has legs (well, not literally!). See, $4000 is about what it would cost in total travel budget to send someone to Cape Town for the next ICSE. If we can buy much of the kit we need to create a lightweight version of the ESP prototype locally in Cape Town, and use a laptop for the monitor, we could even throw away much of the kit at the end of the conference and still come in under the typical travel budget (not that we would throw it away though!). I think the biggest challenges will be getting a reliable enough internet connection (we’ll probably need to set up our own routers), and figuring out how to mount the kit onto some local furniture for some degree of portability.

Well, if we’re serious about finding solutions to climate change, we have to explore ideas like this.

PS Via this book (thx, Greg) I learned the word “detravelization”. No idea if the chapter on detravelization is any good (because Safari books online doesn’t work at UofT), but I’m clearly going to have a love-hate relationship with a word that’s simultaneously hideous and perfectly apt.


  1. Of course the cheaper alternative is forcing everyone, local or remote, to interact as if they were remote. For example, via second life.

    It’s possible that as second-life-like environments improve (e.g., with Microsoft’s new hand-gesture controls via a 3-D camera), they might lead to even more-natural remote interaction.

  2. Yuri – yes, but I think second life is many many years away from giving the sense of presence that you get from a face to face meeting (especially important for creative design tasks). For a start they need to add good audio. So, in the meantime, here’s a solution that could be implemented today. Of course, it’ll only work if a significant number of the participants are physically present (otherwise, who’s going to push the hardware around when necessary?)

    Although I have a vision of a meeting room somewhere on the planet where there is a boardroom table and a set of ESP’s positioned around it, but nobody ever physically goes there.

  3. I think that humans will always have the urge to be physically copresent. This solution is ideal for the situation where only a few people are remote. This is a particularly difficult situation because the remotes are at a distinct disadvantage.

    Different distribution patterns require different solutions. A two-site team might benenfit from team rooms joined by a video wall. A fully-distributed team might be served best by a Second Life kind of environment, or even an audio-only virtual environment. One size distinctly doesn’t fit all 🙂

  4. Pingback: Scott Hanselman's Computer Zen - Building an Embodied Social Proxy or Crazy Webcam Remote Cart Thing

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