Electronic Design

Will Virtual Presence Replace the Handshake?

As an editor, I participate in numerous meetings during an average week. Many are in-person meetings in an office, at a convenient hotel, or on the exhibit floor of a trade conference. But today, a growing number of them are "remote" teleconferences.

In this new age of tight budgets and justified concerns about traveling, many companies are relying more on the communications infrastructure to get their messages out. Although I understand their reasons, I personally prefer the high quality of face-to-face conversation to gauge someone's reaction and enthusiasm.

Perhaps as communications systems improve and the available bandwidth increases by one or two orders of magnitude, we will be able to create a virtual presence to simulate the feeling of face-to-face contact. It will also take better video encoding to reduce the data that must be sent over the communications channel.

Today's videoconferencing systems are rudimentary compared to what's needed, without yet addressing the requirements of a full-immersion virtual-reality system. Even the best dedicated videoconferencing systems, which rely on motion-tracking cameras and megabit data rates, will seem insufficient. No longer will quarter-to-full-screen images on a PC monitor be adequate. Instead, there must be large-screen displays, perhaps even 3D ones, to give the participants of videoconferences the same familiar feelings as in-person meetings.

Such capabilities aren't pie in the sky. New wall-size HDTV displays aren't too far away. Already, large-area flat panels with 60-in. diagonals are starting to be sampled, and still larger panels are on the drawing boards. Of course, it will be a while before the prices of such high-end systems come down to earth.

Bear in mind, the amount of image data that must be sent to fill up such panels could require uncompressed data rates of 50 Mbits/s and higher. To make these data transfers possible, better real-time compression/decompression algorithms must reduce the data streams to below 5 Mbits/s so that the data can be sent over the existing infrastructure. Also, the communications infrastructure itself must be improved to provide bigger pipes to the door.

There already are claims that plenty of dark fiber is in place for cross-country and inter-city connectivity. Only the electronic subsystems to light the fibers are necessary. But moving the data from the interchanges to the door will probably require major investments in either fiber-optic cabling, high-speed DSL (ADSL or VDSL) implementation over existing infrastructures, or the deployment of ultra-wideband technology.

The question is: Should we push to make the virtual handshake a reality, or set the new paranoia aside and choose the ultimate—a personal handshake and face-to-face contact?

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