Monday, March 29, 2010

True Telepresence and the end of space

Telepresence has to be the most obvious technological shift that will break into the mainstream, probably in the next decace, certainly before my daughter enrolls in University.
It's been a long time coming. Conference calls have been around for a long time, and with tools like Skype and various low cost commercial tools for virtual seminars, have begun to creep into the educational mainstream. At the other end of the market, top end vendors sell specialist conferenceing suites at price points to compete with the corporate jet. Affordable systems are improving fast, but they're not ready for primetime. The first 10 minutes of any session goes like this:
"Hello Galway. Are you there?"
"Yes, I can hear you, but I can't see you."
"OK Let me check the camera"
"Is Dublin on?"
"No They txted me. There's some problem. They are looking for the technician"
Once the session is rolling and everyone is logged on, it's still hard going. Participants complain it lacks the immediacy of a physical session. People at a distance can be easily tuned out as humans in the room take precedence over the lost little faces on the screen. Bandwidth bogeymen can drop people without warning. Technophiles will no doubt argue that it all works fine, you just have to woggle the transmogrifier. If it worked well, they wouldn't have to argue at all.

Forget all that, for a moment, and close your eyes. Imagine true telepresence. Imagine your seminar in classical history, given in the Roman Arena at Arles. At your feet, an ant labours busily in the dust. The sound and vision is perfect. Only the light summer breeze is missing. You see perhaps two dozen students from all over the world sitting on the dusty benches. Really, there are thousands, but no one sees that, each student only sees their peer group and you. When one student wishes to ask a question, the system artfully shifts them into the front row in everyone's illusion, gently and unnoticed, like a magician, they are just there. Only sometimes, in dialogue, does a tiny timelag betray them as from Honolulu, or Auckland. After a few minutes of introductory remarks, it's off to Actium. The class will fly as seagulls and watch the battle unfold below as the Triremes clash. Then off to breakout session in the Taverns of Athens, to discuss the outcome and argue the strategy with, it always seems, just enough bread and wine on the table to rearrange and demonstrate how it should have been fought, if only.

It's lovely, but what does it mean? Most importantly, just like Actium, winner takes all. No longer does a student need to put up with an incoherent lecturer in their local college who doesn't know a Trireme from a Bireme, and is only teaching this module because the Head of Department used to do it, but he's on sabbatical in Istanbul. If the best lecturer on the topic in the world can teach any number of telepresent students at so many euros a head, they will. They will be able to afford the splendid simulations, and they attract enough excellent postgraduates to run the small group sessions that are long the means of the your local, increasingly impoverished history department ("Or perhaps we should take on some of those new Virtual Instructors, they're very cheap nowadays"). Where once the material might have been taught in a thousand universities, now it will be taught in ten. The best teachers will command rock star salaries and draw thousands of students. The Simon Schamas and Niall Fergusons of today are in many ways like Caruso and McCormack, the first 'Stars' of opera a century ago. Back then, recordings were expensive. If you wanted to hear opera, you had to get in a room with a singer. There was work for plenty of tenors. Before recordings, they could, like lecturers, only earn their living one audience at a time. Now Carreras and a half dozen others command the lions share of the money, all the recording work, the sellout tours in 5000 seat venues. For anyone outside the top 10, it's a lean line of business, sung for love. When you can watch a top 10 performer live in 3D, in your living room, in full surround sound, it'll be leaner yet.

So it shall be for the teachers, in the age of the Superstar Professors.
What about the University? Where does that fit into all this?
Nowhere, much.

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