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

Human-Human and Human-Machine--Foreground
and Background

MK: Then, telecommunications media should also diversify to serve specialized functions ?

WB: Yes. Another important aspect: if we look at technology, there's actual (technology-mediated) human-human and human-machine interaction. The telephone, video conferencing and email are human-human interaction in the foreground, up-front, while electronic whiteboards and GUI (Graphical User Interface) are human-machine interaction in the background. Almost all research so far has been in the area of foreground; research in the background has been missing.

An example of human-machine, background interaction would be the door in the supermarket. The foreground activity here is "take the groceries to the car." The secondary activity is "walk" and the third is " the door opens for you." In this, human interaction with the machine is the same as in washrooms when you put out your hand without having to touch, because the tap knows your hand is there. You know what's funny ? The toilet is smarter than my Thinkpad, because this computer doesn't know I'm here. It can't react. It doesn't know that I'm not alone. It doesn't know I'm showing it to people. But with a little camera, it would be easy for it to know that. The sink in the bathroom knows that, why does this computer know nothing about its context, where it works ? It's stupid. It has millions of switches and the toilet with only one switch still knows I'm there. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. What is human-human communication in the background ? An interesting question, isn't it ? Think about it: in Japanese offices mostly everybody works at a table like this, in the open--everybody is in one big room. When I'making drawings, you can see what I'm doing. While working on my own job, I know what other people are doing; I know who's there. When I have a problem, if I see you, I can grab you and say, "I need you for a minute. Will you help me ? " So, like the camera--humans are like cameras--the foreground action I take is point and click. The background action is focus, expose for the light, and all these other things. Likewise, my foreground is to do my drawing, but in the background I know who else might be important, and when you come by, I can quickly leave the foreground, look up and ask my question, then quickly make the transition back again.

MK: I see. So in that instance would you see "presence" as a sense of backgrounded awareness of actually being somewhere ?

WB: Well, noticing maybe. All the research so far has focused on what comes after you approach someone. Whereas most meetings are in fact accidental, not planned. Yet there's no research on how you recognize an opportunity, say, walking around on the same floor in a building, and how that makes for a meeting. The telephone is very good in the foreground, but I never accidentally meet you on the telephone. You must either call me or I call you. This is where we worked at my laboratory at the University of Toronto and at Xerox PARC. When I'm in my office in Toronto, I keep small images on my screen of the offices to be connected. It just takes one small photograph per minute to see or hear you in the background while I'm working. And when I find the right moment--bang--we connect.

In telecommunications, recognizing opportunities necessarily comes first. And the information that lets you know this must be visible at all times. Second, you must have the means to translate that opportunity into action, to make the connection. Only then can you begin to have the kind of social interaction we're having right now.

William BUXTON
Chief scientist, Alias / Wavefront and Silicon Graphics.
Associate Professor at Toronto University

MORIYAMA Kazumichi
Born in 1970. Science writer and producer.
URL: http://www.moriyama.com/
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