In introducing a short Marketplace Tech Report story about a floating blimp telepresence avatar this morning, host John Moe somewhat sarcastically said "Oh, no: not another floating blimp telepresence avatar story!", highlighting the rather unusual nature of a story about a "blimp-based boss". The story, reported by producer Larissa Anderson starting at the 3:08 mark, was about a floating remote-control telepresence robot that can enable people to remotely interact with - and perhaps unexpectedly look over the shoulders of - coworkers. It is a rather unusual story, but perhaps not quite as novel as some may believe. I was immediately reminded of some early research my friend Eric Paulos did at UC Berkeley on "Space Browsers" and other examples of what he called Personal Roving Presence (PRoP) in the 1990s.
Somewhat ironically, just last week, I mentioned another example of robotic telepresence "then & now" in the class I'm teaching on Computer-Mediated Communication. A 2005 BoingBoing post by David Pescovitz on Telerobots Separated at Birth highlighted the similarity between a wheeled successor of Space Browser, what Eric called PRoP 2, and "Sister Mary", an example of what InTouch Health calls RP [Remote Presence] Endpoint Devices).
Separated at birth? At left, Sister Mary, a telerobot offered by InTouch Health that enables physicians to conduct their rounds remotely. Sister Mary is now being tested at St. Mary's Hospital in London. Link and Link
At right, Eric Paulos and John Canny's Personal Roving Presence (PRoP), a telerobot that "provides video and audio links to the remote space as well as providing a visible, mobile entity with which other people can interact." PRoP was developed at UC Berkeley in 2001 1997. Link
Space Browsers: A Tool for Ubiquitous Tele-embodiment
The first PRoPs were simple airborne tele-robots we named Space Browsers first designed and flown in 1995. The Space Browsers were helium-filled blimps of human proportions or smaller propelled by several lightweight motor-driven propellers. On board each blimp was a color video camera, a microphone, a speaker, and the electronics and radio links necessary to enable remote operation. The entire payload was less than 600 grams (typically 400-500 grams). We used the smallest blimps that could carry the necessary cargo in order to keep them as maneuverable as possible. Our space browsers ware able to navigate hallways, doorways, stairwells, and even in the confines of an elevator. We experimented with several different configurations, ranging in size from 180x90 cm to 120x60 cm and shapes from cylinders and spheres to "pillow-shaped" rectangles. We found he smaller blimps were best-suited for moving into groups of people and engaging in conversation with minimal disruption since they took up no more space than a standing person. The browsers were designed to move at a speed similar to a human walking.
The basic principal was that a user anywhere on the internet could log into a browser configured to pilot the blimp. The system used a Java applet to send audio to the blimp, to control its locomotion and retrieve audio and visual information. As the remote user guided the blimp through space the blimp delivered live video and audio to the pilot's machine using standard tele-conferencing software. The user could thus observe and take part any remote conversation accessible by the blimp. These blimps allowed the user to travel, observe, and communicate throughout 3D space. He could observe things as if he was physically there.
Picture the scene: your boss phones to say he is working from home. A calm descends over the office. Workers lean back in their chairs. Feet go up on desks - this shift is going to be pretty chilled.
Suddenly, a super-sized video feed of your boss, projected onto to the front of a helium-filled balloon equipped with a loudspeaker, floats silently into the room and starts issuing orders from above your head. Not such a good day.
This blimp-based boss, which brings to mind the all-seeing Big Brother of George Orwell's 1984, is the creation of Tobita Hiroaki and colleagues at Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo. Its eerie quality hasn't escaped Hiroaki - he says that his colleagues described the experience of talking to a metre-wide floating image of a co-worker as ">Tobita Hiroaki and colleagues at Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo. Its eerie quality hasn't escaped Hiroaki - he says that his colleagues described the experience of talking to a metre-wide floating image of a co-worker as "very strange".
The project does have some non-sinister applications. It's part of a wider movement aimed at making "telepresence" who medical specialist>telepresence" possible. Imagine a medical specialist who can't make it to a regional hospital, but needs to consult with a patient there. Or an academic expert who wants to deliver a lecture remotely. Telepresence researchers are working on technology that can get a representation of these people into the room. To put it another way: telepresence lets you be in two places at the same time.