Feature: Telepresence: A Technology Transcending Time and Space
HIROSE Michitaka and MINATO Chihiro

Technology Approaching Humanity

HM: The GPS systems which I mentioned earlier used to costin the 10 millions yen (roughly six figures US$). And today they are available for a few hundred dollars. The CABIN system which you experienced earlier is still a laboratory research tool, and as such, extraordinarily expensive, but I'm sure that their prices will come down until the point when one day, all of a sudden, they'll become ordinary household appliances. Seems like that sort of thing is happening all of the time. (laughs) Only a few years ago just when you'd have thought that voice recognition programs were a completely inaccessible technology, and now you can pick one up for a few hundred dollars.
As things get cheaper and smaller, issues of portability and mobility come into play. In this case, the human is the one doing the moving, so it becomes, in a sense, the opposite of telepresence. The body moves out into the world with the informational world attached. As computers continue to shrink, they approach the size of their counterpart body members, and an entire array of new issues arise. For example, how to adjust the visual parameters of the HMD, how large of a data glove is appropriate, what to do to customize for differing body types.

MC: The problem of how to treat approximate values....

HM: Yes. Computers continue to miniaturize, eventually becoming something like glasses, where each person would have one prescribed just for themselves. I'm sure that they will soon become "personal computers" in an entirely new sense of the word. In fact, we're already seeing the emergence of wearable computers.
Another interesting technological facet is that as the range of activity increases, our present technologies will become unusable. The sensors in the CABIN, for example, are only capable of operating within a 2.5-metre radius. You can use a GPS on a scale including Tokyo and Osaka, but there is no such thing as a sensor that handles a range anywhere close to that. So imagine that we need to develop applications for walking around within a specific building, or walking around a university campus, you can see that there are so many issues that need to be dealt with first.

MC: Another interesting technology in this sense is ultra high-Magnetic 3-D position Sensor (Long Range version) (from What Is Virtual Reality, Diamond-sha) resolution photography, which can--even from a satellite orbit of 800 kilometers--still photograph with enough precision to capture a human hand. It is still extraordinarily expensive, but in the near future will be used in civilian applications, such as precision documentation in museums and the like. High-resolution reality.
I think that you can break reality into three basic categories. The first would be expanding reality. Science in general follows in this direction, in that the more science searches, the deeper into the further reaches of history it extends. Archaeology is a classic example of this. Continually in the process of finding things that hadn't previously been known to exist, archaeology is in the field of expanding reality. The second classification would be increasingly detailed reality, or micro-reality. The third would be contradictory reality...a reality that becomes increasingly ambivalent in relation to the future. A reality that is incongruous in the direction that it seems to take.

HM: Such as in simulation?

MC: Yes, I think so. What was until now known to be simulation itself, yet in its increasing potential to be simulation and nothing more than simulation, still, at the same time, has the power to create reality which also needs to be considered. It seems that reality has really expanded to this point.

HM: Even we in the field of VR tend to consider VR as a form of simulation. To use an earlier day's phrasing, simulation is a model of reality. The problem is when the model supercedes the reality, as can happen in our field. Many architects, for example, have been using VR-type simulations in developing their urban designs. They are testing out their ideas in cyberspace, and developing spatial concepts appropriate for cyberspace. Of course this is still taking place within simulation technologies, but within the space of their discussions that city exists in their consciousness. What's interesting is what happens then.
Because, say, one of the shops scheduled to open in that city opens up a homepage on the Internet, and begins doing direct mail sales, for example. The city begins to function even though it doesn't exist yet. Then, in time, the actual city comes into form. This is a form of simulations which clearly supercedes simulation.

MC: If I'm not mistaken, the concept of simulation comes from associations of the body and its double or shadow. And "image"as it is understood in the west is a two-dimensional rendering of the actual figure. In other words, the shadow of the original. As a subsidiary existence its status is of a lower nature. First you have the authentic reality, and then its image naturally follows. Or in the case of building a city, the traditional process is to project a number of these shadows upon the potential phenomenon. What you describe is a shift in this very thought process.

HM: I would describe it as the virtualization of actual space. The urban environment traditionally constituted of architecture or built objects. But when computers and network technologies enter into the picture, the urban space itself ceases to be developed as a thing, and begins to be developed as a condition. When things have come this far, what is important is not whether some element was simulation or not, because it is all the same at that point. In this sense, it is as though they begin with beta versions of the city, which, through a gradual process of development, produces something which is the sum of real elements in the planning process.

MC: That's why we don't know what comes next with simulative forms of reality. It could be that we've only attached the real to the project as a kind of final process step. (laughs)

HM: Even if we consider simulation as a lower class of existence, there are things with factual meaning and therein reality which, if recognized, then provides a viable intellectual value--then it is only normal that we should accept this as the emergence of a separate dimension. We have to speak of this dimension in cultural terms, because it speaks to what human beings are looking to. It could be that the youth of today are not at all as fixated on reality as we are. They're perfectly happy with the coarse imagery of video games. The sad thing is that we were brought up on TV. We want things to look a little more real. I think that there is a huge cultural gap there.

MC: Probably so. Reality and telepresence both come down to issues of the ability to imagine, if you ask me. Thank you very much for taking the time today to speak with me.

[This dialogue took place at the University of Tokyo on April 8, 1998.]

HIROSE Michitaka
Born in 1954. Researcher in systems engineering and human interface development. Associate Professor at the University of Tokyo, School of Engineering. His writings include What Is Virtual Reality? (Diamond-sha), The Birth of A Cybercity and How Close Will Technologies Catch Up with Man? (PHP Institute) and Virtual Reality(Sangyo Tosho), among others.

MINATO Chihiro
Born in 1960. Photographer and critic. Associate Professor at Tama Art University, Tokyo. His writings include Eizo-ron (Discourse on Moving Images) (Nippon Hoso Shuppan Kyokai), Shashin toiu dekigoto (Photography as A Phenomenon) (Photo Planet), Kioku--Sozo to soki no chikara (Memory--Powers of Creation and Recall) (Kodansha), Chushisha no nikki (Cahier d'Un Spectateur) (Misuzu Shobo) and Gunshu-ron (Crowd Theory)(Libroport), among others.

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