The trend towards greater location flexibility in employment has received a major boost by a team of scientists who have developed conference call technology that can beam a 3D hologram of a person into a meeting. The holograms bear a remarkable resemblance to the those that feature in Star Trek, yet another example of how science fiction so often proves to be the inspiration behind new technology.
The tech is called ‘TeleHuman 2’ and has been built by researchers at Canada’s Queen’s University. The 3D avatars it creates are claimed to represent the world’s first truly holographic communications system. The individual represented as a hologram stands under a system of depth cameras to capture movement and a microphone of course captures and relays speech. On the other end, projectors mounted above a reflective cylindrical pod beam the 3D hologram into a room, which can be seen from 360 degrees without the requirement for a headset or 3D glasses. If two individuals both have TeleHuman pods, they can even meet as holograms for locations on different sides of the globe.
Until now, hologram technology has mainly been used in the entertainment industry, bringing deceased performers back to the stage posthumously. Roel Vertegaal, a professor of human-computer interaction and the Telehuman 2 project’s lead says that the technology his team has developed for TeleHuman is significantly more advanced than that used by the entertainment industry to date.
While working culture moving more towards ‘remote’ flexibility is being embraced, there are still many circumstances in which a lack of physical presence has significant drawbacks to effective communication. As Professor Vertegaal explains:
“Face-to-face interaction transfers an immense amount of non-verbal information. This is lost in online tools, promoting poor online behaviours. Users miss the gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact that bring nuance, emotional connotation and ultimately empathy to a conversation. TeleHuman 2 injects these missing elements into long-distance conversations with a realism that cannot be achieved with a Skype or Facetime video chat.”
The first version of the TeleHuman system, which the team has been working on for 6 years now, only allowed for one person to view a holographic projection well, as a position directly in front of it was necessary. The latest version means the holograph is visible from around a room from the different perspectives that would be the case if the person was actually standing in the holograph’s position. This allows for crucial aspects to natural physical interaction and communication such as eye contact.
The complexity and expense of the tech set-up means it can be safely assumed the TeleHuman system will be confined to the offices of multinational companies for the foreseeable future. However, the typical trajectory for these kinds of new technologies is to subsequently develop further to the point they reach a format that works for the wider market. That would potentially significantly accelerate the trend towards flexible remote and home office arrangements between companies and employees. The bad news is that could mean the mother-in-law being beamed into your living room at some point in the future. Skype meetings with work clothes worn down to the waist and just your underpants below that will also no longer be an option!