Feature: Telepresence: A Technology Transcending Time and Space
An Interview with William Buxton

The Technological Pursuit of Divergence

MK: So we need to design special technologies to meet diversified scenarios--to be used where and how and by whom....

WB: Yes, and that's where we have problems today. Today every computer looks the same. If I look at the technology--video conferencing and the telephone--all of these technologies are exactly the same if you're an accountant in Japan or a computer scientist in Germany or a medical doctor in Canada or a computer animation person in France. In fact, none of those technologies have changed in concept for more than 15 years. If I look at a modern computer with Windows 95 or NT, it looks exactly the same as Xerox Star that came out in 1982. If I look at video conferencing today, it's no different from video conferencing 20 years ago. If I look at telephone today, there's been no progress. The only progress is in cost and distribution and maybe speed. But conceptually, the idea behind the design philosophy has not changed.

We must be smarter than that. There's a famous old Broadway song called "Is That All There Is?" When I look at technology today, I ask, "Is that all there is? Did the people who invented these technologies get it correct the first time? Will it get no better?" My answer, of course, is I hope so, because it's terrible right now. So what I have to say is, first, what's needed?--the social side. Second, what's the design approach? Now we can move on to Part Three--what are some examples of how these things can happen? Let's talk about telepresence. If we want to make a new technology to support collaboration, maybe it's a good idea to look at an old technology to support collaboration and see what we can learn. I don't think the problems are new. The technology is new, but the problems are not--which is actually a good thing, because if it's all new to us then we can say, "I'm not educated. I don't have any bases to make decisions right or wrong." If I'm designing technology and everything is new, then I'm lost. But designing social structures and organization structures--that's not new. All of a sudden I can smile, because I've got knowledge, I can understand it. So let that be the basis for designing. There have already been technologies to support existing organizations.

Now, here's a very good exercise. Take a piece of paper and keep a record of every conversation you have during the day and make a note of how long it lasted. Did you plan to have the conversation? Was it scheduled? How many people were there and where did it happen? It's very interesting to notice that some take place in your office, some take place in a conference room, some take place at lunchtime in a restaurant, some take place in a corridor because you bump into people, some take place outside--let's say you take a walk outside because you don't like your colleagues. Some take place on email, some take place on the telephone. Then if you note what you talk about, you start to understand that we choose the location depending on why we're meeting. We also notice that we don't always have meetings in the same place. There's a rich variety of meetings and structures designed to accommodate that rich variety. Which brings me back to technology-mediated interaction and telepresence: what do we do if we have one video conferencing room and all meetings--no matter if they're scheduled or unscheduled, serious financial meetings of the company directors or brainstorming between junior engineers--take place in that one room? When in history did we ever believe that one location could support every kind of meeting for every kind of person in an organization? All technology design more or less follows that approach--certainly in video conferencing--with a central location, a central room. It's the same as saying that every meeting in this office must take place in the same room. It's crazy. Everyone would quit the company the next day.

It doesn't matter how nice this room is, how much everything cost--this is a video conferencing room!--or how expensive the video conferencing equipment is. The important thing is to distribute the technology so that there are as many different meeting places for electronic meetings as there are for face-to-face meetings. They should be different not only in location but in the kinds of meetings that they support. We have a wealth of different meeting environments, so they correspond.

So we come back to Part One: what kinds of meetings do you have? Where do you have them? What are the parameters? Why do you have them in that location? Why do you have them in the boardroom instead of in an office or in the corridor? Once we start to understand what differentiates that location from this location, then we can start to think about how to design the technology that seamlessly supports that kind of meeting.

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