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In the Digital Diaspora

The very recommendable Newsletter on event design from 5 February 2021 by event expert Monique van Dusseldorp inspired me to write this post. In it, she reports on the development of video telephony and the importance of screens for the illusion of human presence at events in times of pandemic-related contact restrictions.

Events have changed a lot in the last year of the pandemic. Instead of full congress halls with hundreds of participants, events have been moved to the digital. But not only here, but in all areas of communication, the pandemic has forced us since the beginning of 2020 to find and apply alternatives for face-to-face communication in mutual presence. After one year of experience, many voices are being raised in favor of not going back to the old state after the pandemic, but to examine the advantages and disadvantages of the new replacement practices in order to bring together the best of both worlds. This situation can be seen as an opportunity not to let oneself (as designers and also as users) drift from one release of specialized software to another without a single doubt. In the pandemic, we have learned that digitalized work processes and networked solutions can be essential for the way we work together, the way we learn, or the way we spend our lives with family and friends.

What to Learn From Pandemic Communication Practices?

So how do we want to communicate with each other in the future? My observation is that today we let our technical infrastructure and existing software dictate how digital processes work. Of course, in the pandemic, we were all happy to find solutions that allowed us to maintain our necessary communication processes to some extent. Most resorted to available software like the famous straw. But, would we prefer the same software if it were not an emergency situation – with more time to test their fit into our own processes, data protection and digital well-being? A vaccine is tested and released in a validated process. We are currently using masses of software that – well – was simply there at the right time, but which will have a formative influence on the way we communicate with each other in the office and in our private lives.

I assume that the current pandemic-related global mass test for contactless communication will not remain without consequences. Let’s use the remaining time to think about whether and how contactless communication would be desirable in the future.

Looking Back

I remember my first video conference well. I was working for Hitachi R&D at the time and was doing research with my colleagues for a project on “Personal information & communication in the office of the future“. We had to book a video conference room at Telekom especially for this. The other conference participant, whose head and upper body were displayed on a monitor, literally “sat” at the same table as a fictitious discussion partner due to the spatial arrangement of the real conference table and the monitor at the end of the table. That was in 1993. The simulation of reality was important to engage with the then new form of conferencing.

As a designer at Hitachi R&D, I was part of the design team that developed an office system that seamlessly integrated video conferencing into otherwise analogue everyday life. A symbolic but real conference table, flowed into the screen and represented the bridge between the physically and digitally present people. The mental model of a conference consisted of the idea of a table with chairs, where people sit opposite each other at eye level. At the time, we were also experimenting with the question of how the trustability of the illusion depended on the size of the image of the person sitting opposite and the format of the screen. The question is, which mental model do we want to use today to make a video conference a desirable experience in all aspects?

1993, concept for an office video conferencing system.
Fig. 1, 1993, concept for an office video conferencing system.

What Is Essential?

Today we hold our conversation partners (depicted on the smartphone) litteraly in the palm of our hand, or look at multiple presences simultaneously in a tiled representation.

Typical tiled representation in a video conference software (here: Big Blue Button)
Fig. 2: Typical tiled representation in a video conference software (here: Big Blue Button)

For bandwidth reasons, the conversation participants are often even represented only by a name, an acronym or an avatar.

In video conferencing, however, the state of bodily absence does not only apply to our counterparts. We ourselves also become absent. In common video conferencing tools, you can observe yourself as a member of an event, lined up in the field of participants on the picture tile wall. We are both participants and distanced real-time observers of ourselves.

Moreover, the event no longer takes place in a real room, but in the abstraction of the screen. In such meetings, reality becomes a side effect that is perceived as disturbing. Thus the backgrounds of the screen are carefully staged, replaced by hipster-loft-wallpaper or optionally made unrecognizable by blurring. Reality is perceived as inappropriate, as an embarrassing insight into one’s own private sphere. The fact that those affected are not satisfied with their representation through miniaturized pictures transmitted more or less without interference is made clear by the hype of the image-free alternative Clubhouse. Communication via video is simply so nerve-wrecking that we just want to cut off the visual channel.

The pandemic has forced us en masse into video conferencing. It’s certainly not the most pressing issue – but now that you yourself are obviously looking at a screen as you read this – let’s consider this phase of screen-based manifestation of identities as a gigantic test of the status quo of video presence solutions. It is very likely that the pandemic will give a boost to home office and (at least in higher education) tele-learning. So it is high time to reflect on whether the current video presence solutions of your interlocutors, colleagues, acquaintances, friends, family members are satisfactory. In other words: What if all reality disappears from our communication?

Communication and Physicality

We know from research that our mind cannot be without the body. Based on a holistic model of embodied cognition 1, our body is the central element of the perceptual loop. Now, in the home office, we not only lack a connection to the physicality of our counterparts. No, we also cannot express ourselves through the body. Shouldn’t we compensate for this deficiency through design? Or to put it another way – is the transmission of image and sound really enough? Don’t we perhaps need another channel that can adequately convey the missing aspects of our identity as human beings?

Conference Room Metaphor

Even after nearly 30 years since my first video conferencing experience, the conference room metaphor has lost none of its symbolic power – at least as far as formal meetings in companies are concerned. A metaphor consists not only of an image, but of the idea of complex processes and connections, roles and behavior patterns. Thus, the metaphor conveys everything that is lost to us in the digital. Its narrative replaces the missing reality in our minds. For example, the company Cisco offers conference room solutions for hybrid conferences (in addition to the usual video conferencing solution on one’s own laptop). Instead of individuals, a conference situation (people sitting around a table) is depicted and transmitted here.

Hybrid conference rooms, here: Cisco Webex Room 70 Panorama
Fig. 3: Hybrid conference rooms, here: Cisco Webex Room 70 Panorama

For the video conference system at my university, the names of the seminar rooms were adopted. So for each seminar room, a fixed video conference room was set up as a digital twin. At first I was surprised at the seemingly antiquated way of dealing with a system that can usually be used to set up and hold ad-hoc conferences. In the meantime, I very much appreciate being able to give the students a little support through the constant of a room, even in the digital world. So we meet weekly in “our” space and it feels good and familiar.

Body by Space

However, an artificial experience of space can also create the illusion of (one’s own) physicality. Companies such as Avatour offer meetings in the real place of a conversation partner via VR glasses in real time. In addition to the conversation partner, their surroundings are also recorded via a 360° camera, in which one can look around and move around thanks to the VR headset. The company describes the solution as “transporting remote persons in real time to real places” and speaks of Remote Presence. Indeed, the 3D view and freedom of movement in a real environment, in which there is also a conversation partner, has a real-looking effect.

Remote-Presence-Szenario der Firma Avatour.
Fig. 4: Remote-Presence-Scenario by Avatour.

Virtualization of Body and Space

Telepresence is when you let yourself be represented by your digital twin in another place. One of the solutions on the market is offered by the company meetingROOM. The participants meet in a virtual room. Their avatars, however, consist only of heads and hands.

Avatare als Telepräsenzen im virtuellen Raum. Hier: Beispiel der meetingROOM-Lösung.
Fig. 5: Avatars as telepresence in the virtual space. Here: example of the meetingROOM software.

If one follows the research on place and plausibility illusion in virtual reality 2, the pretence of a space in which external and self-experience is possible seems quite promising, as long as the (substitute) body is given room to manoeuvre and social and physical interaction in a coherent and self-contained spatial experience. Here, more would certainly have to be staged than a conference table above which the heads of the participants float.

Testing Additional Channels

As part of the search for the potential of alternative forms of communication, it would be an interesting attempt to test other sensory forms of communication and connection with communication partners in addition to the visualized spatial illusions, in order to find out whether we will actually meet exclusively in virtual realities in the future.

The flaw in virtual reality at the moment is that it is, well, virtual, and that it is a parallel world to real existence. So couldn’t we enable the body to have a sensory experience in exchange with others – and would that actually support communication? No, I am specifically not referring to the cyborg self experiment by Kevin Warwick and his wife, which became known as the first purely electronic communication experiment between the nervous systems of two humans 3. I think it would be interesting to consider sensory interfaces outside the body. As an example, I would like to cite Juno, a student project to connect couples in a long-distance relationship through the sensory transmission of touch, heartbeat and mood.

juno device for sensory augmented communication
Fig. 6: Juno device for sensory augmented communication

We Need to Talk

As you can see, our future communication is an exciting field and I really don’t want to experience this complex process in a digital video conference room for the long term. I am looking forward to hearing about your speculative, scientific, futuristic or realistic ideas about our future communication.


Sources

  1. Glenberg, A. M. Embodiment as a unifying perspective for psychology. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science (2010).
  2. Slater, M. (2009). Place Illusion and Plausibility Can Lead to Realistic Behaviour in Immersive Virtual Environments. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences. 364. 3549-57. 10.1098/rstb.2009.0138.
  3. Warwick, K, Gasson, M, Hutt, B, Goodhew, I, Kyberd, P, Schulzrinne, H and Wu, X: “Thought Communication and Control: A First Step using Radiotelegraphy”, IEE Proceedings on Communications, 151(3), pp.185-189, 2004

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