Domestic telepresence at scale: some notes

21.05, Monday 27 Apr 2020

After I posted about video calls, doing stuff together, and the TV room, there was a great discussion on Twitter. Listen to some of these ideas:

  • On remote togetherness without having to have anything to say, Tom Critchlow speculates: perhaps an e-ink dithered image that is an always-on video feed of my living room? Shared with family and friends?
  • And later in the same conversation, Another way to think about it – always on HD video of the living room shared with family/friends but only at specific times like every day 2-5pm or something.

…which I’m into as an idea! I like the idea of a scheduled group call that fires up on your TV at 2pm for an hour whether you’re there or not. Also I think there’s a lot to be said for ambient noise – it’d be neat to hear the muffled sound of activity on the other side of the TV screen.

There was a good discussion about how you could do a “keep the doors open” kind of telepresence, but without massive privacy violations. Even a dithered e-ink screen would today require an internet-connected, always-on camera pointing directly into your house. Scary.

  • Scott Jenson talked about how that could be done: What about local only analysis of an HD signal? The video never leaves the camera, but it does output who it recognizes and that gets shared with only the immediate family. – and I like this idea of compressed “computer vision dithering” that shares only one of those green boxes and labels diagrams rather than the full feed.
  • How could you guarantee and certify that, asks Han Gerwitz., Maybe we need some sort of visibly low-bandwidth networking. Sensing cameras that output only a QR code display, with scanning cameras collecting from them.

I really like the idea of computer networking protocols that are human readable. I have a vague memory of reading about an audible protocol that sounded like birdsong? The advantage being that if a hacker was trying to get into your network, you would hear it.

On the other end of things:

  • Andrew Eland pointed me at Tonari which makes massive room-scale screens that show other, remote rooms, with the people projected there at 1:1 scale: tonari is an open doorway to another place. (Here’s Andrew’s tweet.)

Tonari is for businesses, it’s not made for the domestic context. And I like the idea that sometimes you’re having a meeting, but sometimes you fall into an opportunistic water-cooler chat, and the rest of the time your colleagues are just there, the ebbs and flows of the two offices brought together, however far apart.

I mean…

Some of these ideas are pretty weird. BUT. But. Why not give them a go? The feeling of it all. It would be good.

I’ve been trying to put a name to what it is I’m circling, and the best I can I can come up with is this: domestic telepresence at scale.

By telepresence there’s the usual meaning, being telepresence robots (which come and go in the zeitgeist, that post is from 2011). But ALSO AND MORE REALISTICALLY I would include group video calls. The robots being something more like “peak” telepresence?

Actually, I would include anything that contributes to this feeling of togetherness… fictional ideas like the idea above of transmitting the ambient noise of the home so I feel like a family member is in an adjacent room, and also real ones like “availability” indicators, and WhatsApp read receipts, and so on.

What I’ve learnt from my experiences with casual Zooms with friends, or hanging out in social Slacks, or doing workouts with my family in Australia with a combination of YouTube Live and group FaceTimes is that these technologies all combine to produce a sense of togetherness, they all count!

Telepresence isn’t something you step into, rather it’s a gradient. Your attention can be fully or only partially split between the local and the remote. And you’re in multiple groups of course, each of which has different compositions and norms. So you need all these different approaches at different levels for peak telepresence to even have a chance to occur.

Then there’s that word domestic.

I can’t even imagine what this lockdown would have been like without the internet. I’m with my family and friends, even though we’re physically sometimes thousands of miles apart. And although I’m giving the internet credit, I will also say that the internet has not really served us that well. The fact that we have this sense of togetherness right now, domestically, is because there is an amazing mass co-opting of technology going on:

Zoom was not made for people to play bridge! Facetime wasn’t created to be left propped up in a corner while we sing “twinkle twinkle little star” and then wander off to make a cup of tea while people come and go from the room. But imagine if these technologies had been built for these behaviours!

Look. People in business will do all kinds of bonkers things if there is Return On Investment.

But “domestic” means having TVs which are shared devices, and phones which are private. It means group accounts. It means old people and young people. It means different rooms in the house. The domestic world is more diverse, more messy, and more demanding. Software isn’t built for this.

What’s particularly energising about this period of forced experiments, as Benedict Evans calls it, or less abstractly, “not being allowed to see our friends”, is that I’ve been reminded that telepresence is powerful and people want it when it works and there is a absolute TON for us still to explore.

At scale.

The reason I include “scale” is because I want to figure out how to continue to have this sense of togetherness available for everyone… even after we’re allowed to leave our homes.

When the lockdown ends, a lot of this co-opting of technology will end too. That’s a shame.

Anyway, in all of this domestic telepresence I would include

  • door-sized big screens that are telepresence-teleporters into other homes
  • e-ink portals and low-bandwidth sensors, maybe even our old Availabot presence toy (2006!)
  • tabletop robots that can be inhabited by my family members: Ross Atkin’s AMAZING tabletop telepresence device is a DIY robot made from a cardboard kit and a phone, and you drive it around your friend’s kitchen a hundred miles away with your face talking out of it.

In what world could Good Night Lamps be just at home on my shelves as my books are?

Any one of these on their own would be weird. But together, and normalised somehow…

I think what the “at scale” requirement makes me ask is: how could these be mainstreamed, and how could people almost compose their own experiences through all kinds of different services and devices, without having to do things like create a new social network in a thousand different places?

I don’t see that the answer could ever be a single service doing it “right”: there can’t be a single “winner” such as Zoom, or Facebook, or WeChat, no matter how many features they throw in. People and groups are too different.

So I think of iPhones and Amazon Echoes.

iPhones and Echoes both pass Google’s toothbrush test: Is it something you will use once or twice a day, and does it make your life better?

But nobody’s iPhone and nobody’s Echo is the same. We call it “downloading apps” but really what’s happening is that people are making their devices radically different – a camera for one person, a TV for the next. They’re twice-a-day toothbrushes, sure, but it’s a different toothbrush for everyone.

Maybe there’s a lesson here?

I guess what I’m speculating is a kind of social operating system that links all these different parts, and allows new ones to emerge.

Something that doesn’t abstract Zoom, Facebook, and Animal Crossing, but sits alongside them and someone provides visibility between them (or not, as appropriate).

What would it mean to see that your friends are congregating watching Netflix (remotely) while you’re still at work? How could they hassle and yell at you to come hang out already?

A digital photo frame that understands it’s in the shared front room and somehow shares only the pictures appropriate to that context from everyone in the house?

What about something that lets me and my group step up a gear from iMessage not into FaceTime, but into toy telepresence robots, playing an obstacle course that somebody has cobbled together in their front room?

Feeling my way around something here. Not sure what it is yet.

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