If telepresence systems bear out their promise, a true blending of the real and virtual will be possible -- something along the lines of Star Trek the Next Generation's holodeck, version 0. And, based on demonstrations I've witnessed this week, most of the necessary parts exist today. We are simply waiting for a group of companies or a single entity to put them all together.
Visual Computing and Visual Networking
This week, I found that much of the focus at Nvidia's NVISION show was on the concept of visual computing, which encompasses the broad way graphics are enhancing a vast number of products, including cars. (I mention this industry because I found my soon-to-be new car in the show, and it too will use visual computing for navigation and in-car entertainment.)
I was also briefed this week on Cisco's efforts with the Olympics and the U.S. national political conventions. In a nutshell, what it did was enable real-time editing of live broadcasts, allowing technicians to insert graphics, which clearly fell into the realm of visual computing, into these shows while they were being created. The end result in both cases was that remote viewers got a different and arguably richer experience than those actually attending the events. Granted, computers can't yet convey the excitement of being in a room with thousands of people and tens of bathrooms, but you actually get real-time analysis and, in the case of sports, a real-time look at, for instance, how the swimmers are doing against an existing world record.
Immersion Technology showcased at the Nvidia event an executive presentation where the items in the executive's hands came alive in real time. In one example, he was talking about wind power; a handheld windmill toy grew into a wind turbine and streets and vehicles in an imagined city came to life as he described them.
I think this blending of the real and the virtual is the beginning of a change not only in what we watch, but how we communicate over telepresence and particularly how we communicate using virtual reality offerings like Second Life and Active Worlds.
Building a Different Tomorrow
I ended this week talking to a company called Milestone, which is bringing to market a tool that analyzes video in real time, largely for security alerts. It also showcases another real-time blending of video and technology that could make the end result more broad than I was initially thinking.
For instance, let's say you were working on a manufacturing floor and there was an injury. An alerting system like Milestone, coupled with visual networking and visual computing, could recognize a preprogrammed hand signal, then graphically alert security staff with the quickest way to get there with a gurney. The system could also report the quickest way out, electrical outlets the emergency team could use, or other local medical assistance technology. The line manager could see an overlay of what the line shutdown was doing to his manufacturing process and provide routing alternatives to work around the bottleneck or recommend visually how the line could be restored more quickly.
Let's say the same line manager wants to showcase in a conference just what he needs to ensure this kind of accident doesn't happen in the first place. A virtual representation of the line could be introduced that he could manipulate in real time. Then the changes and costs of each option could be visually attached to the image, helping the executives reach the right decision more quickly.
Finally, using video from security cameras routed to the telepresence system, an executive could showcase what was done and, using the same graphics capability, show where he exceeded budget or saved money. And this technology could model out the result if what was learned were applied to the entire factory.
We've got the pieces. When they're spliced together into a seamless experience, we'll begin to live in a world where the limits are only in our imaginations and the lines between reality and imagination are increasingly blurred.