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.