People have been able to have a near real-time presence at a distance since the electrical telegraph. Commanders could send troops into battle and investors could convey orders to buy or sell. So, telepresence, in the sense of communications, dates back almost 200 years (and even longer if one considers semaphores, smoke signals, and beacons).
From videoconferences to sending commands to online banking to robots that crawl the surface of Mars, telepresence is ubiquitous and taken for granted. These communications can include automated elements and can provide richer experiences as we learn to compress information and more effectively emulate visual and auditory experiences. But the kind of telepresence that moves beyond communications to include transmission of physical capabilities (via telerobotics) is just emerging.
The hallmark example is surgery at a distance. The first major telepresence surgery was performed in 2001, and the U.S. military has invested $12 million in “trauma pod” research designed, eventually, to allow battlefield surgery at a distance, using a mix of automated and teleoperative procedures.
What other possibilities are there for combining relatively rare knowledge and skill across distances? What work might we want the hand(s) and the brains of an expert for to be brought to a remote location?
Physical Therapy – This one is also in the medical realm, but will be driven more by falling cost of equipment than rare knowledge and concerns about the practitioner’s safety. But part of the cost of physical therapy today is bringing people whose mobility is compromised (or for whom a car ride exacerbates pain) to the therapist’s office. Telepresence could bring the healing touch to people who would otherwise not be able to benefit from therapy.
Sports Coaching – Much teaching can be done with video and voice, but athletes also need to have nudges to move feet or shift fingers. They may need to have a hand guideing them through the swing of a tennis racket or the flow of a side-thrust kick.
Performing Arts – Though time lag can create concerns, there already are musical collaborations that take advantage of telepresence. While these are successful because the product, music, is easily transmitted, other performing arts, such as dance may be more challenging, but still possible. One can imagine the near real-time movements of a robotic dancer (in human form or something more outré) stimulating and reacting to a human dancer. There might even be an all-robot show, with the devices becoming avatars for talented dancers who are collaborating from different regions. Working through an avatar could even allow a dancer to perform moves and express him or herself in ways that are not physically possible (because of age, disability, or ambition).
Archeologists – It is not unusual for an archeological dig to be vulnerable to the presence of humans. Humidity, the flow of air, pollution, and temperature changes can all lead to the destruction of ancient artifacts (such as the pigments in tomb drawings). Telepresence can combine the observation with deft use of brushes and other tools of an archeologist with the means to keep his or her physical body and environmental threats far away.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. It is likely that many other areas will become ripe for this kind of technology as new tools develop, costs drop, and potential needs become apparent.
Of course, these are all at the far limit of telepresence. Between communications and skilled physical manipulation are waldos operated by switches and joysticks (think of the remotely operated deep sea vehicle that was used to find and retrieve the safe in the movie Titanic. Or drones that combine are flown remotely and may take advantage of human eyesight, evaluation, and reflexes to destroy military targets, including enemy combatants.
The array of tools needed to facilitate different opportunities in telepresence is large, and the current understanding of human limits, such as simulator sickness, is limited. I’ll probe some of these in my next post.