Telepresence: A Science Fiction Story

“So. . .” she said soberly, “This is my last week dancing in the States.” An easy dance was playing, and they could chat while dancing next to each other in the circle.

He was short and compact. His feet were agile, but his age was betrayed by the gray in his hair — what was left of it. She was taller and broader, with dark black hair tied in a short, frizzy ponytail.

While he was happy if he could just do the dances properly as choreographed, she danced with confidence, adding her own flourishes, to the befuddlement of weaker dancers who were trying to follow her. Her trademark gesture was to place her left hand on her hip while raising her right hand high in the air. It gave her a look of elegance and grandeur, which no other dancer tried to copy.

Attending the same dance sessions over the years had created a bond between them, although they had never seen one another outside of dancing. She continued, “Will you and your wife come and visit me?”

“Well, actually, I plan to dance on the beach in Haifa every week,” he replied.

Her eyebrows arched and she looked down at him, puzzled. “But you . . .your wife. . .she wouldn’t move to Israel. . .would she? And. . .and you?” she stammered.

“No, we’re here,” he smiled. “Our grandchildren are here. We’re not leaving Maryland. But I’m sending a doppelganger over to Haifa. You know, one of those telepresence simulators.”

She stopped dancing and stared at him. Touching him on the elbow, she motioned toward the hallway outside and said, “I’ve read about that. Tell me, how does it work?”

When they were in the hallway, he began, “So, you know these glasses I have. I put them on sometimes when you want to speak Hebrew. There I’m not really using the vision in the glasses, just their microphone and the ear pieces. The mic picks up your voice and the earpiece tells me what you are saying, in English.”

“But sometimes you use the glasses to see things. I remember when Ken put on Pesek Zman and nobody could recall the dance, you put those glasses on and you were able to lead it — ”

“Right. The glasses can be used to show content from the Internet. What my eyes see in the glasses is kind of a computer screen. Think of it as a display. I called up a video of the dance, I watched it on my display using my glasses, and then I could remember the steps. It was like going to a computer to see the video, except I didn’t have to stay in front of computer. I could just look at the video on the glasses while dancing.”

“But you didn’t buy those expensive glasses just for dance videos.”

“No, I mainly got them for speech processing, for when I write essays. I have all the functions of a word processor, but I don’t need a keyboard. The glasses use the mic to pick up what I say and write it to the display. But the cool thing is that they have little cameras that pick up my gestures, and those gestures allow me to manipulate the text, so I can edit the way you would on a computer. For example, I can point in the air with my finger and the display in my glasses will show a cursor on the text. I can drag my finger to highlight a section, then flick up to cut what I selected. Then I put my finger-slash-cursor in a different place in the text and flick down, and now it’s pasted. So I can move text around. I can also do bold, indent, or all the other functions of a word processor. It used to be that you could only use speech-to-text for short messages. Now, I can take walks in the park and write an entire book. Other people might think I’m a little weird, talking to myself and gesturing, but — ”

Just then, one of their favorite dances came on, and they went back into the room to join in. Later, when the session leader was teaching a dance that they already knew, they went out into the hall to resume their conversation.

“So, the doppelganger — of course, the company calls it a telepresence simulator, but I call it a doppelganger — is a robot that integrates with the glasses. The robot is in one location, and the owner is in another.

“The doppelganger has a camera that communicates with my glasses over the Internet, so I can see its environment. When I turn my head, the sensors on my glasses pick up my head movements, and they send signals to the camera on the doppelganger to turn. That way, it feels to me like I’m at my doppelganger’s location, on the inside,” he said, turning his head from side to side as if to illustrate.

“I can set it so that when I talk, it comes out through my doppelganger’s speaker, and I hear through the doppelganger’s mic. So it really feels like I’m inside my doppelganger.

“My glasses also pick up the direction that my body is moving, and that gets transmitted to the doppelganger. I can set it so that it copies me, moving in the same direction at the same speed. So if I walk forward, the robot moves forward. If change direction, the robot changes the same way.”

“What if you bump up against a wall?” she asked.

“You mean me, or my doppelganger?”

“Well, either one.”

“The doppelganger won’t bump into anything. It’s programmed not to touch anything other than the floor. If I try to get it to collide with a person or an object, it will over-ride that. It stays out of the way.

“But suppose I’m sending my doppelganger down a long hallway like this, but I’m actually standing in a little room. What happens when I reach a wall? Their solution for that is that I can gesture in front of my glasses like this — ” as he pointed forward — ”and then I can turn around while my doppelganger keeps going straight. Or if I want to keep going straight but I want my doppelganger to turn to the right, I can point to the right.”

“What’s the purpose? How would people use this?”

“The idea is for attending meetings and conferences remotely. Let’s say there’s a conference in Tokyo, and I really would like to attend some of the sessions there, but it’s too far to travel. If I have a doppelganger there, I can walk around to different sessions, talk to people, . . .”

“But what do they see? Is this doppelganger an exact copy of you?”

“Not as of now. In a couple of years they may have something that can be customized to look like a particular person. For now, it’s a generic robot that looks sort of human. It’s only 4–½ feet tall.”

“So it does look like you,” she teased. They both laughed. “Sorry, continue. This robot will be able to dance?”

“This version doesn’t have hand gestures yet. So it won’t be able to really look like it’s doing the dances. But I’m hoping that it moves well enough to keep up with the dancers, and that the cameras and the mic are good enough so that I feel like I’m there. My hope is that I’ll be in my basement, dancing by myself in a circle, and it will feel like I’m in Haifa, dancing with the crowd at the beach.”

“And so will this doppelganger do partner dances? Will your wife get jealous? She almost never allowed you to do couple dances with me before.”

“No, it can’t do partner dances. Like I said, it’s programmed not to make contact with anyone or anything. That could give rise to all sorts of liability issues. Also, to turn you it would need hands, which it doesn’t have.”

“But still, letting you feel like you’re dancing on a beach in Haifa sounds so futuristic,” she said.

“Well, if you think about it, it’s not like there is some incredible new innovation. It’s more like a combination of capabilities that were already around. I remember about ten years ago seeing a robot that could represent you at a conference. But the person operating the robot would have to manipulate it using hand controls. Also, to watch what its camera was showing, you needed to look at a computer screen. You could not get the feeling of actually being inside the robot.

“And computerized glasses have been around for a while. Remember Google glass? But they didn’t have cameras to sense gestures or sensors that detected movements of your head and body. To get the glasses to do stuff, you were restricted to a few voice commands. Now, your physical motion makes things happen. More like a virtual reality headset in that sense.”

“Do you know what the doppelganger sort of reminds me of?” she said. “Remote-control drones. The kind that the military uses to go after terrorists.”

“Yeah, I can imagine a lot of military uses. But the robots would have to work differently. They would have to be able to hold things, like weapons. My guess is that the military is working on it.”

“What about a two-way video conference?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You could have your doppelganger in Haifa, and I could have my doppelganger in Maryland. I could be eating dinner while you could be eating lunch, and we could talk to each other as if we were sitting at the same table.”

“But we’ve never gone out to lunch or dinner together before,” he pointed out.

“Maybe that could change.” She winked slyly as the music started and they returned to the dance floor.

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