In recent years, telepresence systems have become more common. Unfortunately, most of them are little more than a videophone on top of a motorized stick. The EU Commission’s Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS) wants to change that, by developing a system called “beaming.” When fully developed, it should reportedly provide telepresence so real that for the operator and the people at the other end, it will be like the person is actually there.
The term “beaming” comes from the Star Trek transporter and the idea is the same – sending a person from one place to another instantaneously. Since teleportation isn't possible, CORDIS is pursuing the next-best thing by creating a system that sends a person to the other side of the world in the form of a robotic avatar. Instead of staring at a monitor and moving a telepresence robot by remote control, beaming uses virtual reality technology and a humanoid robot with full sensory data and feedback mechanisms to provide a completely realistic experience.
Ideally, the avatar will be an android indistinguishable from a human – possibly one on which the features of the operator can be projected. What CORDIS ultimately hopes to achieve from its four-year project is a system wherein the operator can hook into the internet and send a virtual presence to a distant location, that presence being able to move and interact with people in a completely natural way as well as carry out any tasks a human being could.
That goal is still a long way off. This isn't surprising, because such a system needs to be incredibly complex. It isn't just a matter of streaming video over the internet. It involves robotics, cybernetics, neurology, haptics, computer graphics and a host of other technologies that are beyond anything existing today.
The reason for doing this is that current telepresence technologies are very unsatisfactory, according to CORDIS. Humans are social animals and, paradoxically, as telepresence technologies evolve they become more frustrating. Where a telephone conversation is something that people carry on comfortably because it's just speech, video conferencing and telepresence robots make many people uncomfortable because they remind them of what is missing from this meeting that isn't a real meeting.
“When we meet people in the flesh we can pick up on subtle cues – facial expressions, quirks, who is looking at who,” said Stephen Dunne from Starlab in Spain. “There is so much non-verbal communication that you miss, even with the highest quality video conferencing technology. You can't shake hands or decide to look around the room, for example.”
One way that CORDIS is trying to provide these cues is to develop robots that recreate facial expressions. Early attempts involved a robotic avatar whose features could change mechanically, though it came off looking a bit like an iron gremlin. The researchers are now using robots like Robothespian, that use screens and graphics to provide expression.
The system also requires an enormous amount of visual, audio, motion and pressure data streaming because it has to use sensors at both ends working in real time. These are necessary not only to control the avatar, but to provide the operator with a realistic virtual environment in which to move.
“It was important for us to make the interaction as natural as possible. Whether people are interacting with a robot or some kind of virtual avatar, we want the experience to feel natural and not get in the way of normal communication,” said Dunne.
CORDIS is also studying legal and ethical questions about the avatar, including privacy concerns, liability and potential criminal behavior. This is important because the technology will mean that a person can be in one country while simultaneously in another, which may result in some rather tricky questions arising.
Dunne doesn't believe that beaming will do away with travel, but it will have important applications in the near future. “It is ideal if you want to transport a person with specific skills or knowledge to another location,” he said. “It gives that person total physical immersion in their remote location. They can touch and interact with their remote environment. We think it might work for top surgeons who could ‘beam’ into operating theaters all over the world and share their expertise and knowledge, even perform operations.”
The video below outlines the beaming project.