Blog post

The Future of Presence

I spent a few days last week in Newcastle, England - a real gem of a town for tech history enthusiasts and urbanists. Newcastle is where the first steam trains and railways were built at the dawn of the industrial revolution. It was the demonstration of Robert Stephenson's Rocket in 1829 in Newcastle that you might mark as the beginning of mass mechanical mobility.

Anthony Townsend | October 23, 2007, 2pm PDT
Share Tweet LinkedIn Email Comments

I spent a few days last week in Newcastle, England - a real gem of a town for tech history enthusiasts and urbanists. Newcastle is where the first steam trains and railways were built at the dawn of the industrial revolution. It was the demonstration of Robert Stephenson's Rocket in 1829 in Newcastle that you might mark as the beginning of mass mechanical mobility. Less famously, but relevant to our Future of Work theme, there is also a building on the quayside, that my friend Professor Andy Gillespie pointed out was one of the first office-only commercial buildings ever built.

I was there for the Design of the Times (Dott) 07 festival, a year-long event sponsored by England's Design Council, and organized by John Thackara (of Doors of Perception fame). It was an amazing exhibition at the remarkably restored Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, an old flour mill cum gallery. This year's Dott was organized around understanding sustainability, and featured a number of funded project that had been running throughout Northeast England all year.

My talk was the keynote for the first of a series of Dott 07 debates, on Movement. (others include Food, Health, and School). The topic I took up - "Must we keep moving?", as I thought more and more about it, became about the Future of Presence. As you'll see in the text of my speech below, I was trying to unpack some of our hopes and fears about the prospects of emerging immersive telecommunications technologies to displace high-energy, high-impact air travel.

I'm delighted to have this opportunity to speak with you, becuase I think framing the issue as a dilemma around movement is the right way to look at it. While we gain so much from mobility - exposure to new ideas and people that stimulates innovation - we are also are quickly seeing that the way we are doing it now just isn't sustainable. And I also think that the situation is more complex that many in the world of transport or city planning realize.

So what I want to talk about is not the future of mobility but rather, the future of presence. By "presence" what I mean, is that if movement or travel is a means - then presence is the end. And so I want to broaden the discussion of mobility to include technologies and practices of telecommunication - ways of being "present" at remote locations.

The Synergy of Telecommunications and Travel

Now the idea that presence is something that can be achieved by other methods than just physical travel isn't a new one. Over the last 50 years we've seen a simultaneous rise in both business telecommunications and travel. In fact, I don't think we appreciate that the second half of the 20th century was about two intertwined revolutions, the telecom revolution we hear about all the time but also a quieter mobility explosion, whose ripples are just now being felt in the big developing economies.

At many times people on one side of the debate or the other have wrongly forecast that one side of this equation would overtake the other - we would see the death of cities, the death of distance, and the end of travel. But what's important here is that these things happened because of each other, not in spite of each other. This particular kind of presence, international business presence, is facilitated by a hybrid set of infrastructure and human activities - making calls and getting on planes.

Now, today, the Internet, for all its distance-diminishing potential isn't really breaking this relationship. In fact. much of what we use our network technologies for is arranging travel. If you look in your email inbox or keep a diary of mobile phone calls - a safe bet is that 75-90 percent of the messages are about arranging travel or planning meetings. So right off from the start I want to break you of any mental habit of thinking that the Internet is going to make us stop moving.

If anything, its going to make things worse. For instance, the Internet is a fundamental part of low-cost airline business models. They are utterly dependent upon the efficiency of Internet bookings, and they are now the biggest driver of expansion in air travel from London to Lahore. For instance, on any given flight of Brazilan low-cost carrier Gol, 1 of every 3 or 4 passengers is flying for the first time ever.

Now, this issue of "presence" is an intensely personal issue for me because last year I moved back to New York from California but kept my job at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. As a result, on top of all the travel I do for clients and conferences, I commute about once a month to California by plane. I'm what Eric von Hippel of MIT might call a "lead user" of the air transportation system - the kind of person that seeks to hack and tweak the system.

And lately what I've been seeking is ways to hack the system so I don't have to actually use it. To be tele-present in Palo Alto as much as possible, both to deepen my collaborations with colleagues and to reduce the amount of time I spend in airports and on places.

But the biggest motivator has become the guilt of what my lifestyle is doing to the atmosphere. And this is a real dilemma, because just giving up my job and trying to find something closer to home isn't an option for me right now. My livelihood depends on travel - my market is small and scattered - and i have a baby coming next year, so I won't be switching careers anytime soon

And so this journey is making me realize how complex the interplay between virtual presence and physical presence is getting. I keep looking at the map of my social network on Dopplr, a site that lets people share trips, and realizing that young people are defining their very identity through mobility, and network-enhanced and augmented mobility. We need to appreciate just how deeply embedded this high degree of personal mobility has become in our lives, and plan for lots of it rather than pretending we can socially engineer ourselves to stop. This is not just my group here of globe-trotting hipsters, its also the millions of Britons who'll holiday in Spain and Greece this year.

And so to digress for a second, i want to define just how bad for the atmosphere air travel is. Earlier this year the Institute decided to do some internal brainstorming about how we could reduce our organization's carbon footprint. Many of the suggestions were things like printing on both sides of paper, or turning the air conditioning down. While noble, and in the right direction, I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of understanding of how our business consumes energy.

So what I did was try to calculate our carbon footprint for various kinds of mobility. For our daily commuting, I guessed about 5 people taking a 60-mile round trip train ride and about 15 people driving 20 miles round trip. That works out to about 6 tons per month. Then I calculated the impact of a trip we took to Shanghai in March for a client workshop. The five business class round-trip seats represent about 16.5 tons of carbon.

The result are astonishing - just one trip is almost three months worth of our combined daily putterings to/from work and around the office. So what that told me is we really need to rethink the impact of our air travel and search for alternatives.

Must We Keep Moving?

So, there's the problem. We're addicted to high-energy mobility. But what can be done? There's a couple possibilities.

The first option is to use existing transportation solutions more efficiently. There are all kinds of incremental improvements we can do to make air travel more efficient, like make planes bigger (the new Airbus A380) or lighter (the Boeing 787).

Second, we could develop new transportation technologies or repurpose old ones. By most estimates, aviation biofuels are decades from the market, but there are some interesting ideas to move air cargo onto a new generation of airships that are 1/10th as carbon-intensive as jet planes, and fast enough for even many express shipments.

The third is to use offsets to mitigate the impacts of emissions from say jet travel, by financing something that will absorb carbon elsewhere - like replanting forests. I bought a TerraPass for $150 to offset 100,000 miles I expected to fly this year. Yet something tells me that this price can't be right. If it were, then global warming wouldn't be a problem. We're clearly not capturing all the externalities. Furthermore, there's been great debate about the efficiacy and accountability of carbon offsets. And they don't really send the right message - that we don't need to change our behavior at all.

But what's really interesting today that just a number of drivers - particularly for global corporations are coming together to make travel less appealing. These include:
-controlling rising travel costs and the impact of high oil prices
-addressing security risks of exposing employees to terror and aging infrastructure
-reducing executive burnout from travel
-and finally (and until now usually last in the US), carbon emission reduction

At the same time, we're seeing a number of very rich, immersive kinds of telecommunications mature:
-virtual worlds like Second Life
-sensors and robotic technologies to give computers ears, eyes and limbs
-high definition. multi-screen videoconferencing

And so this door opens for a fourth option of what we can do about the movement dilemma, which is is to try tweak that connection between business travel and telecommunications - even just a tiny bit, and try to substitute for some of the travel, or just slow growth. Essentialy, what this means is focusing our attention on re-designing the way we manage space and time to create "presence".

I think talking about "presence" is useful because it gets us away from two dead ends of the debate that are so easy to fall down.

The first dead end is telling people they can't have mobility - some say this is the kind of massive social re-engineering we really need. But I haven't found a place yet on earth where its going to feasible anytime soon. China wants to produce 80 million cars a year by 2030, and is buying airliners as fast as they come off the assembly lines in Toulouse and Seattle.

The other dead end, is fantasizing that the Internet will become so rich a means of communication, that we'll all just sit at home and conduct our affairs online, and demand for movement will inevitable decline. This is a very popular view in Silicon Valley, though California ironically is a place where no one is actually "from" - they all got in a plane or a car to get there. Parking at the airport on Thanksgiving or Christmas in San Francisco will prove that.

And so talking about "presence" lets us transform the question from "Must we keep moving?" to "can we make moving part of a much larger set of tools, choices that we have for projecting presence?" Or alternately, "how can we combine moving with other things to move less?"

So if you can, imagine a spectrum: one end where we're constantly engaged in high-energy intensity mobility like airplanes, the other end where we're locked in our bedrooms playing World of Warcraft. Its in this spectrum where we can create interesting combinations, leverage telecommunications technology to alter the way we move, that help us live our lives more sustainably. As a designer, imagine a dial that we can use to move along that spectrum - as we dial down movement, we dial up telepresence - but never fully substituting one for the other.

And so I want to spend the rest of my time briefly sharing some stories about 3 technologies that i think will play a major role in re-designing presence: virtual worlds, telerobotics and high definition videoconferencing.

Virtual Worlds

The last 5 years have seen the rise of a number of virtual worlds - simulated, immersive online environments that are essentially the 3-d web that was envisioned in science fiction dating back to William Gibson's Neuromancer. The most popular are game worlds like World of Warcraft, where millions of people are playing incredibly elaborate, immersive and social fantasy role-playing games.

But more general purpose 3-d web infrastructures like Second Life are now being built along an open, web-like model. These are environments in which both amateur and professional designers have free reign to build all kinds of additional functionality and create content.

What's important is that Second Life has become a place where people are experimenting with new forms of presence: virtual offices, virtual conference rooms, and virtual stores like you see here.

Even more interesting is that real world data and objects are being sensed and projected in real-time into Second Life. IBM, which is really pushing Second Life (so it can sell consulting and private versions) re-created the 2006 Wimbeldon center court, shot by shot in Second Life using real sensor data on ball position.

Interestingly, these worlds have real economies, and their currencies actually float and are convertible (Linden dollar is 267, WoW gold is 10.20 to the USD) Not quite as bad for American travellers as the UK!


Looking the other way, we're also seeing virtual selves projecting themselves back into the real world.

Tele-robotic experiments like Eric Paulos' (UC Berkeley, now Intel) "Personal Roving Presence" demonstrations shown at the bottom here - 10 years ago demonstrated the potential of having a physical presence in remote areas as well as a visual one.

This idea is just starting to enter the 'netizen meme pool, but we're seeing people hacking solutions like this robot created by a software developer in Nova Scotia to be telepresent in his office of a Toronto software developer. And consumer versions aren't far behind - the first consumer telerobotic product - the iRobot Connectr, is basically a Roomba vaccuum with a camera on top.

These seems silly now, but personally I've found a great desire for this kind of telepresence. With something like this, I could easily participate in the dynamic work culture of our office in Palo Alto - moving between meeting rooms, having water cooler conversations... which I can't do now because my videoconference setup there, while always on - is a fixed, desktop installation.

Think of it as the personal UAV for the workplace!

High-Definition Videoconferencing

Finally, coming a little back closer to today's reality, we have high-definition videoconferencing.

What these systems do is use life-size, high-definition wrap around screens and directional audio to create a room in which one side is physically present, the other virtually. Examples include HP's Halo system, which was designed for the animation studio Dreamworks to support collaborative work over a 500-mile distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Cisco's Telepresence product, which you see here, is similar.

Technically, these systems are mainly about integrating a number of components on the market - high definition displays, broadband networks with good quality of service, etc. In fact, for Cisco, selling the network upgrades for this application is far more profitable than the system itself. The bandwidth requirements aren't great (about 15 Mbps for Cisco's system), but there are some funny impacts of how you dress - for instance, if you wear a striped shirt, you completely confound the compression algorithms and dramatically increase bandwidth requirements.

Interestingly, there is also a spec for the room in which the system will be installed - vendors require that you optimize and duplicate the setup - down to wallpaper and furniture - on both sides of the link, to sustain that feeling of "sameness" and the illusion of co-presence. The cost for all of this - about $300,000 per site, or about 30 business class tickets to Singapore. The ROI is an easy calculation.

Getting back to our topic of interest - what is the impact on travel?

Organizations within HP report that Halo use has resulted in travel reductions on the order of 20%, with a concomitant increase in productivity. (the same goes for HP's customers that are using Halo) For instance, the time it takes for the company to transfer a manufacturing line has been cut in half. HP is planning an even broader deployment of Halo, explicitly for further reducing travel. (This is the same goal that Cisco CEO John Chambers has set internally for Cisco - 20% travel reduction)

So this could be huge for carbon reduction - while these systems use gobs of electricty (Cisco's system draws 8 kilowatts per node!), this could be a big gain for companies, with many ancillary benefits.

(This technology may be headed for the home as well. Cisco recently acquired Scientific Atlanta, the leading provider of set-top boxes for cable TV in the US. Cisco engineers believe that within 5 years, they will be able to compress HD video at about 1000:1 from a set-top camera, enough to move it over today's DSL or cable networks.)

So that's pretty promising, 20% travel reduction for every big company on earth would add up quickly. That's a real gain. But its important to note that HD videoconferencing will probably require large investments in heavy, fixed infrastructure for the next decade.

On the other hand, there are also a set of technologies emerging in the consumer marketplace that are being put to very interesting uses at the grassroots to innovate new forms of telepresence.

Sites like show how combining the open platform of the web with the video cameras in most new laptops, young people are creating collections of live video feeds - broadcasting, socializing, flirting, getting drunk together, etc. This is important, because it reflects the tools/practices they will bring as innovations to the future workplace. Over the long run, these communities will be the sources of innovative forms of telepresence that might allow us to design less energy-intensive kinds of presence

Prospects for Travel Substitution

So those are some exciting technologies. But in the end, we have to face this reality of the last 50 years - where business travel and business telecommunications rose lock-step for decades, and ask "can these applicaitons really displace travel?"

In the short run, the answer appears to be yes... high-definition videoconferencing is clearly replacing some travel in a couple of high-tech companies. But we should be skeptical - companies like Cisco and HP are communities of engineers who get this stuff and are willing to try it, and are highly decentralized. And they are selling this stuff!
I think its also important to recognize that just like the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet - these technologies are inherently technologies of globalization. They are created by global companies to manage global operations. So, if they do free up resources, we'll see those resources put to other uses. IFTF colleague Paul Saffo saw this clearly over a decade ago, when he wrote in Fortune magazine:

"Videoconferencing may spare us biweekly trips to our supplier's Singapore plant, but if we hadn't traveled there regularly to begin with, the relationship might never have gotten off the ground. Now that the relationship exists and is sustained by communications links, we are free to arrange other trans-Pacific trips. By making travel more manageable, we are traveling more than ever. "

And so I'm not sure I see anything on the horizon that will derail this curve - it is the economic fingerprint of our age. There's even the risk that next generation video-conferencing - by better integrating global teams - might actually drive a whole new expansion of global business travel.

So at this point you may be getting mixed signals. Is he saying that these technologies our salvation, or the finale of an unsustainable economic order based on energy-intensive mobility?

I'm not saying either, because frankly I don't know. But I am doing what I do every day, which is try to work with organizations to think about the future by mapping out the key drivers.

And I am optimistic, because if try to design new forms of presence now, while this technology is at an early stage, and while there is great and growing attention on the issue of sustainability, and while organizations aren't quite sure what absorbing a new generation of highly networked young workers means for how they function.... then we have a tremendous opportunity to use good design to share a better future.

So if I can, let me leave you with three ideas for thinking about how to evolve your own practice or that of your organization, to innovate new kinds of presence that will help reduce your demands on the planet's energy resources, and hopefully by extension its environment.

The first is to rely on virtual for long-distance interactions, but "budget" for some travel. Any relationship that we try to put solely online is doomed to failure, but by pledging from the start to commit to at least one face-to-face meeting can help resist demands for more travel and meetings. If a team knows that it will get together once a year to bond, share knowledge, etc - that could eliminate anxious need for monthly or quarterly trips.

Satisfy the desire of movement by more intense local mobility. People love to move and travel. By thinking about ways to increase mobility within buildings, neighborhoods, regions - we may be able to satisfy some of that urge for long-distance energy-intensive travel that can only be accomplished by air travel. This means investing in better designed workspaces, and public spaces (and blurring the lines between the two).

Finally, I think we all need to keep our eyes on lead users - the 12-25 year olds that are developing entirely new kinds of presence online. Much has been written about how social practices are changing on the social, immersive, multimedia web, but almost none of this looks at place and mobility. What kinds of new, altered and hybrid boundaries are they creating? How can we empower them to be the agents of transformation.

Share Tweet LinkedIn Email