2007-10-17 08:40:54
Telepresence for Piece of Mind
We have finally reached the point where telepresence is no longer sci-fi. Today, hospitals are using video and remote monitoring to help with staffing and doctor availability. The average home user can go to the store, pick up a $15 web cam and use free tools like Skype to communicate with loved ones at whatever distance. It is at once, what we've all been waiting for, and something many seem to resist. What keeps us from embracing the future? What will it take to combat the years of concept of 'Big Brother' that has warn on the collective psyche?

It's been there, for many years. Lingering. Popular media embraced it as yearly as the 60's with shows like The Jetsons I'm sure as soon as the camera was created, people have been forced to ponder the consequences. Many have tried (and failed) to bring telepresence into the mainstream. What is it about the concept that makes people pause?

Last night as I was going through my usual nightly ritual of washing dishes and listening to the radio. (I am an MPR junkie when it comes to audio distractions while working on manual tasks) The familiar tune of The Story came on and I was treated to a discussion of how hospitals are using video to backfill the demand for 24 hour surveillance of ICU patients. The pros and cons were vetted with a doctor and a nurse that operates on the floor. They seemed to think it was a pretty effective system. The facility in question had 70 rooms and all of them were equipped with some fairly hi-rez cameras with servos that allowed a remote doctor to inspect patients quite close. All monitoring equipment (anything that you can imagine that beeps and blips in said context) could be accessed by the viewer, including things like max, mins, alerts, and trends. While it may, at first, sound quite impersonal, the more I listened, the more I felt that in that context at least. This is what you *want*. The host, Dick Gordon was doing his job, and playing devils advocate. At one point, as if to shine the spotlight on the obvious elephant in the room, he actually read a quote from George Orwell's 1984.

Today I finally pulled out the web cam. It's been in my bag for some time now. Originally it was there for some work I wanted to do on image capture, but I had already installed Skype on my machine and my wife's iMac (which has the camera built in) I was able with the push of a button to see my wife and son, siting there waving at me. My son, only 10 months old, was able to see daddy, as opposed to some disembodied voice coming from a cell phone speaker. I'm not on a long trip, I'm just at work. The quality was not stellar, I put things full screen and the high rez of my screen outlines the lower size of the cameras. It felt good. I will say that one of the barriers that I can see, and indeed was outlined with the fact that the Jetsons always grabbed a mask to throw on when the phone rang, is the intimate aspect of the whole thing. It was early, my wife and son still warm in their jammys. This is not something that you want to just share with the next telemarketer that calls. But control is always on your side. You have to hit the button to share your image. No omnipresent all seeing eye here.

The book 1984 was written in 1949. The actual year is now some 20 years behind us. It's fun to think that we are slipping in that direction, with our personal liberties eroding by the minute. But maybe we need just a little perspective on the whole issue. I've always been fond of the phrase 'Just because you are paranoid, doesn't mean they are *not* after you.' In the hospital example above, there was one doctor to 70 rooms. In my home city of Minneapolis there are a number of cameras downtown, but again, the camera to person ratio is too high. Simple logistics states that if someone is watching you, it's likely by chance. Even if they where to tape *everything* the concept is further pushed as now, after not having the bandwidth to watch you realtime, they are going to review hours of video after the fact. Don't get me wrong, I'm not embracing 24 hour video surveillance, but we are still a long ways off from the grim reality that Orwell depicts. We can let go a bit, and enjoy the benefits that this new technology presents. Let's be wary of the issues, and ask the questions, but let us *not* be crippled by the fear of this fantasy that we abandon all of it blindly.

I guess the one thing we can take from this is if there is this much hesitation about the simple things, like seeing your kid while you talk to them, then there is some hope that Orwell has achieved his task. Big Brother is always in the room. If not in reality, at least in the back of our minds. Perhaps in some strange loop, we can let the very existence of that fear, ease our minds by the fact that it does seem to be so ubiquitous. There are always going to be the odd rouge agents that seek to violate what seems to be the unspoken agreement that everyone has made on this issue, but by and large, perhaps that elephant in the room can also be seen as the sentinel that will guard against Big Brother. You can't watch someone yourself, without being forced to contemplate your own feelings about being watched.

And hey, just because you are paranoid...

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