Ya feel me?

There's really no substitute for face-to-face conversation. At least not yet. But people are working to add "presence" to various forms of remote communication. I saw a post on Zeitgeist, StyleSight's lifestyle blog, about an app that allows you and the person with whom you are communicating to touch a spot on your smart phone at the same time. When that happens, you get either a vibration or sound. That's still crude, I know, but somehow it strikes me that this humble app could really make people feel that they were almost touching each other.

It's about engaging more senses than hearing. The more senses get engaged, the more we can feel that we are with the other person. Touch is a powerful sense, and even though you're just touching a screen, I can imagine that the touch and the sound or vibration feedback, combined with the imagination of the user, could really enhance a connection. People almost get there just by seeming to touch palms on a regular screen.

Even more than engaging more senses, it's about engaging the imagination.

Adding video to voice enhances connection as well. As much as I like video calls, however, for me the communication is not really that much more enhanced. I like seeing who I'm speaking with, but maybe it's the flat screen. Or maybe it's that there is little room for imagination in the process. There's an extra sense, but not that much extra engagement by the brain.

Curiously, what works better for me in that regard is Second Life. I rarely go to SL anymore, but I still find it a great way to have a remote conversation. Even though you're not seeing the actual person or persons with whom you're speaking, there's something about the entire experience that makes it feel as though we're all in the same place. Because it looks like we are.

It's that imagination thing again. Even though we're only avatars, each avatar is a personal creation. In a lot of ways, you are your avatar, or your avatar represents you. Then there is the setting, which feels very real. Let your imagination kick in and you have yourself a fairly immersive experience. Most people I know (we were all fairly early adopters) still prefer typing chat, but for several years now SL has also supported voice communication.

When it comes to real immersion, I guess the current state of the art comes from Cisco Systems with a system called TelePresence. In a technical writing class, I saw a short video about TelePresence. Participants sit "across" from each other each facing one or more screens on which other conference participants appear. Apparently it's so realistic that one of the early participants got up and walked toward the screen, thinking he was going to shake someone's hand. Now that's immersion! I have no idea what such a system costs, but it's bound to cost less as more systems like this are implemented.

The Bell System (the precursor to AT&T) used to have a slogan: "Reach out and touch someone." It's almost not just a slogan anymore.

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