What Does Perfect Remote Communication Look Like to You?

Polly Britton

By: Polly Britton

Project Engineer, Product Design

7th May 2020

3 minute read

With the recent abrupt move to a near 100% virtual workplace, Product Designer, Polly Britton, looks at what the far future may look like for human interactions across physical distances:

In the Isaac Asimov novel, The Naked Sun, the planet of Solaria is so sparsely populated that humans living there can only visit each other by holograms of themselves into each other’s homes. The projections look and sound so realistic it is as if the people are in the same room together. (If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, the ‘Holodeck’ showed a similar technology, but they never used it to communicate.) The illusion is so convincing that the Solarians feel no need at all to meet each other in person and find the whole concept quite foreign.

This is the standard of technology I imagine when thinking of remote communication in the future. With ever-increasing Internet speeds, high-resolution displays, and 3D surround sound, it’s a standard we could easily approach within my lifetime. It makes me wonder at what point between now and then will the technology be good enough to replace more of our long-distance journeys, and then our shorter distance commutes? It’s easy to imagine the potential benefits of this kind of technology replacing expensive business trips and tedious commuting, but to what extent will it replace our social interactions too?

What are we getting from these interactions in ‘meet-space’ (or ‘meat-space’) that is worth spending hours travelling to a physical point in space that we occupy together? In addition to the time spent, we have to consider the financial & environmental impacts of that physical journey, not to mention health risks from current and future germs.

There is certainly a multitude of signals we send consciously and unconsciously with our subtle body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, that cannot be communicated remotely using current technology. There is no way to offer a handshake or a cup of tea. Even making eye contact is impossible using the technology most people use. To look at the eyes of the person you are talking to, you have to look away from the lens of your camera, which will give the impression that you are not looking at their eyes. To give the impression of eye contact you can look directly at the camera lens, but it feels unnatural and you can’t actually watch the person you’re pretending to look at. It could be worth investing in a system though that supports eye to contact – a new study led by Tampere University in Finland found that eye contact during video calls (or the illusion of it) can elicit similar psychophysiological responses to those triggered by genuine, in-person eye contact. It suggests that a system enabling natural eye contact during a video call could go a long way to making the interaction ‘feel’ real. This is just one problem to overcome on the way to the gold standard described in The Naked Sun.

With so many people now working from home and withdrawing from social meetings, we might see a sudden revolution in communication technology, and the way we use it. It may be enough to get us to cut down on our meat-space interactions permanently, saving us all the expenses that come with travelling.

But even with a perfect communication system like in The Naked Sun, would we not still want to visit the consultancy designing our product, and the factory manufacturing it? Would we still take a long car journey or flight to visit our families at Christmas? There is no replacement for the tactile experience of a handshake or hug, or sharing food together.

Businesses and individuals need to balance that financial/health/environmental tension against their desire for physical interactions and I would suggest that we need our technology to advance much further than it currently has in order to create a big step change in consumer behaviour.

Although we can’t know what the future holds for us, I think it’s safe to say communication technology will continue to become a larger part of our lives as it develops. It will be interesting to see which advances make the biggest difference – virtual Reality, 360-degree cameras, high fidelity audio, or perhaps some new software features that improves user interface. The advances that change our lives the most are often surprising and aren’t predicted by science fiction at all.

What are your thoughts? We would love to hear from you.