In the future, your living room may function as a standing portal to the houses of relatives and friends across the country.
Despite public concerns, Internet and cellphone use coincide with stronger family relationships. In a recent Pew Internet Project report, 72 percent of Internet users said that the Internet had improved connections with family members. Fifty-three percent of users said that the Internet improved communication with family members who do not live with them.
These “networked families” are maximizing use of new technologies to coordinate and connect, despite busy schedules, across barriers of time and distance. In fact, married couples with children have higher Internet and cellphone adoption rates than other household types.
Internet access technologies are evolving that will eventually take the Internet’s “family” side to the next level. Dissatisfaction with jerk-motion, small-screen videoconferencing has given rise to telepresence systems that use higher-end video and human-factors design to create a more “real” experience of interacting with the people on the screen. They are life-sized (or near it) and you can make eye contact with the person that’s telepresent.
Is it better? Yes. Business users given the option of telepresence have used it at a higher rate than teleconferencing. But systems have been cost-prohibitive for all but the highest-end users, with the highest-end systems, featuring lifelike HDTV displays, approaching $30,000 apiece.
Over time, however, the technology for telepresence is moving toward the consumer market. Wide-screen television displays featuring lifelike 1080-pixel resolution HD are falling in price. More households have access to high-definition TV and broadband Internet at ever-lower prices.
So what should we expect as consumers discover telepresence connections?
Picture this: Homes might feature a new-concept “living room” with always-on connections to living rooms in the homes of friends or relatives in other locations.
In your house in suburban Virginia, you might walk into your living room and have a conversation with a cousin in her living room in Florida, and another cousin in his living room in Illinois.
You might set up a panel for each connection you wish to have, or you might alternate connections on the fly. In either case, the effect will be to “live” side by side in a very real way with people who are actually located across town or across the state or across the country.
Each home would have its own selection of connections. You might be connected to your parents, to your in-laws, to your brother and sister, and to your spouse’s brother and sister. Your spouse’s brother might be connected to you, to his sister, to his parents (your in-laws), his wife’s parents, and his wife’s sister.
Each home would feature the connections of the family that lives in it. Those could change over time.
Businesses would arise to serve these connected families or circles. A restaurant chain might provide coordinated family meals. Family members in New York, Cleveland, and Dallas could sit down in rooms with matching decor, with screens that create the impression of sitting together at the same table.
Too far fetched? Not at all. One firm, Digital Video Enterprises, which has pioneered “immersive meeting room” connections between business locations, is now developing a plan to license its technology to coffee shops, private clubs, high-end restaurants, and other family-friendly venues.
This is just another step in the remaking of life. Information conquers distance. Soon, we will be able to look one another in the eye from anywhere in the world.
— John O'Connor is a Principal with Toffler Associates.