Electronic Design

True Worldwide Communications Need Hands-On Virtual Reality

The world continues to shrink as companies expand their operations to span multiple continents. Today, a company can have corporate headquarters in one country, research and development in one or more others, manufacturing in another country or two, and customers all over the world. This globalization is, in part, made necessary to keep costs down by locating operations in the most economically advantageous places. It also makes it easier to serve local markets.

A big factor in making all this possible is better and lower-cost communications. Gone for the most part are the days of the teletype machine, the facsimile, and the dollar or more per minute phone calls. Here today are gigabit local-area networks (LANs), e-mail, video conferencing, and pagers and cellular communications for pennies per minute or even no long-distance charges. These technologies make it easier to locate people, set up conferences to discuss issues, and move large amounts of data from place to place.

And this is only one stop on a promising path. The communications infrastructure will improve further, allowing at least another tenfold increase in data rates. Wireless communications will also improve as the 3G systems come online, permitting limited digital video to be transferred from handset to handset and data transfers of several hundred kilobits/s. Wireless LANs will move shortly to 54 Mbits/s and faster, and developers haven't stopped there.

Even with these advances, telepresence systems still leave you with a feeling of being "disconnected," or not really "being there" when it comes to group discussions. I think we miss the physical contact, the ability to read the body language, however incorrectly or correctly we interpret it, and all the other aspects we associate with meetings. Technology may have part of the answer if we are willing to make a few concessions to compensate for its current limitations.

Advances in virtual reality are starting to open new options by enabling some form of virtual presence. Some of this is already in use by doctors, allowing them to remotely view and possibly participate in operations or perform remote diagnosis. Doing this, however, requires high-bandwidth connections, real-time control, and a human-machine interface that can replicate the dexterity of human hands.

Although we are still far from the ideal, the use of sensor-rich gloves that can track hand and finger movement and optical and motion sensors that track the movement of the head or eyes will allow the eyes and hands to direct remote cameras and tools. Yet the degree of dexterity possible is still rudimentary. A lot of work also is needed to improve the sensor technology and the response time, as well as to put higher-speed communications in place to handle the increased data traffic the sensors will generate.

Today's sensor technology, though, is bulky and provides relatively coarse results compared to what will be needed to turn the virtual-reality presence into a "being there" experience. Not only will these sensors have to relay data to a central nexus that passes the data to the receiving end, but those sensors must communicate with each other to provide a sort of relative position awareness. This will be critical, for example, if a hand's movements are be-ing relayed and all the finger positions and pressures must be quantified to ensure that the robotic equivalent on the other end doesn't break anything or let something slip.

Again, this communication capability will depend on very localized networks that will let the sensors compare and adjust positional information. Such a sensor network presents challenges that research labs are already starting to address—in addition to the sensor, each node must have a rudimentary communications engine and some intelligence. Integrating all three into a low-cost device will be a challenge, but one I think designers can achieve.

Short of the Star Trek transporter, telepresence with a strong VR assist will be the next best way of being there. The stage is set, the goal is clear, and we're ready. "Beam us up, Scotty!"

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