Teleconferencing has the potential to reshape everything we do. And yet, even though this real-time video communication technology has been around for a while, it is not widely accepted. The reason is that it still doesn’t feel quite right. Teleconferencing often fails to convey non-verbal information, such as facial expressions and hand gestures. However, advances in fiber optics promise to elevate the way we interact in a teleconference and the way we do business.
People like to deal with people, preferably face-to-face. We’re hardwired for it. Half our brainpower -- an estimated computer equivalent of 500 teraflops -- is devoted to real-time image analysis of what is coming through our eyeballs. We are constantly using that cognition to size people up when interacting with them.
A proof point of our predilection for human interaction is the fact that, despite all the advances the Internet has brought us, we still get on airplanes to meet the people we work with, know, and love. When it comes to dealing with people, you are the killer app.
This fact was not lost on Internet pioneers. The first effort I know of to create telepresence was Nicholas Negroponte’s "Talking Heads" project at the MIT Architecture Machine Group. In the 1970s, the group explored ways to increase the feeling of presence in telecommunications without using live video.
Researchers have found that in conversations, humans make minute gestures, or micro-expressions, that often last as little as a thirtieth of a second. However fleeting, these micro-expressions can reveal emotions that are not being deliberately expressed. Of great import on this topic is the work of noted psychologist and behavioral scientist Paul Ekman. After spending decades conducting research in the area, he found that these tiny movements provide emotional subtexts and undercurrents to our interactions, and may be telltales for lying.
Current teleconferencing systems operate too slowly to register these micro-expressions, and this, in my view, is why they leave us feeling cold. When teleconferencing, our subconscious minds alert us that some ineffable human feeling is lacking in these interactions (and, it’s not the smell of your garlic breath). High-definition teleconferencing, wherein these kinds of cues are preserved, requires high bandwidth; if we are having a meeting with 10 people, that requirement becomes substantial.
Along with fellow technologists, I believe that the solution lies in throwing more technology at the problem. Internets 1.0 and 2.0 used copper wire to move bits around. Internet 3.0 will use fiber optic cables to bring the gigabit Internet to our doorsteps for the same price we pay for the megabit Internet today. And with that, we will be able to teleconference our hearts out.
Although the Internet is in its second generation and a thousand times faster, we are still bandwidth limited. In broad strokes, the three iterations of Internet applications look like this:
- Internet 1.0 ran at kilobit speeds; the killer app was email.
- Internet 2.0 runs at megabit speeds; the killer app is the Web.
- Internet 3.0 will run at gigabit speeds; the killer app will be teleconferencing.
As it continues to evolve, I think we will find that teleconferencing creates very human interactions among the participants, and most of us will choose to use it whenever we can. We will find that we are less stressed-out because we won’t have to have to get in our cars, planes, and trains as often. As a result, we may discover that we’re placing less stress on the planet, too.
Like all good technology, improved teleconferencing will enhance human connections that already are in place. At the end of the day, I think we will find what many of us have suspected all along -- that, regardless of technological gains, the real killer app is YOU.
— Hal Bennett, CEO, Lightwave Logic Inc.