The term Telepresence originates in a story by Robert Heinlein. Waldo, published in 1942, is about a misanthropic character who lives in space, despises humanity and operates through Waldos, telepresence machines that mimic human hands. In the story Waldos have two important qualities; they are a no-training tool, the operator puts on a pair of gloves – if you know how to use your hands you know how to use Waldos. They are used in conjunction with a viewing system so that they can be used at micro or macroscopic scale and at great distances. Marvin Minsky, was inspired by the idea of Waldos to create many of the first robots able to manipulate physical matter. His observations of a system consisting of a robot arm, camera, and computer led him to the conclusion that neural connections were constructed in similar ways in humans and machines. Presence involves the human sense experiences of sight, sound and touch. The more closely telepresence systems imitate human haptic ability the more effective they are. A robot hand that works the same way as a human using a glove, is a high fidelity experience. Telerobotics refers to the ability of human users to operate machines at a physical remove. The person working the machine can be seen as ‘occupying’ it, and also as some kind of cyborg human/machine hybrid. Much telepresence work is focused on designing the possibility for humans to act in hazardous places, spaces and situations. Bomb disposal, deep sea exploration, space, and armed conflict are all examples of places where telepresence systems have been working recently. The ethical arguments around combat drones pulls the moral dilemmas of remote operation into focus in terms of human moral agency and displacement. It is this aspect of telepresence, connection between people via machines, that this brief was about.
Valeriya Zaytseva, Thibault Evrard, and Linh Pham designed and made a bathroom mirror writing machine. The idea was that a distant lover could write a message remotely on the misted up bathroom mirror. This worked via SMS and an Arduino controlled suspended cursor. The telepresence evoked here, a fleeting poetic manifestation evaporating in seconds, plays productively on the idea of clarity, permanence and efficiency that so dominates discussion around telepresence systems.
Tae Young Choi, Gregg Orrom-Swan, and Naomi Ashworth designed and built a self-blowing video hair dryer. The system required someone sitting in a chair to blow into a sensor whilst viewing the back of their own head on a video monitor. The force of their exhale triggered a hairdryer to blow on the back of their heads. This neat loop of telepresence modalities, the visual, embodied, and sensory, questioned the often seamless interface aesthetic of telepresence systems such as Skype by exposing the multilayered relationship between representation and action.
Leni Papazoglou and Rob Marshall made a touch reactive surface. Using a perforated board they inserted transparent straws in a grid, then mounted the screen in a doorway. People pushing the straws inward from one side had the effect of causing them to protrude from the other, creating a kind of touch dialogue from either side of the screen. The straws also worked like fibre optic cables with light only visible from directly in front. The whole experience incorporated an embodied interaction as we responded to each other and a play on the drive for ever increased resolution in telepresence systems.
Albert Barbu and Jack Alexandroff started off with a physical connection system involving squeezing warm liquid two between rubber gloves, each worn by a different. The direct sensory presence that resulted as one hand was squeezed also featured visible feedback as we could see the water passing through the connector tube. Telepresence as skin sensation.
The design developed into a pair of beds, filled with water and connected by tubes. Like the gloves, the idea was that as one person turned over in bed while lying down, the other bed would react accordingly as the adjusted pressure caused water to flow between them. Using purple liquid made the connection between beds visible. Thinking about telepresence in terms of physical connection between people rather than a communication mechanism meant embodied interactions were prioritised over screens or digital interactions.