I remember the bad old days of commuting to work. Two basic choices for most of us: crowded trains or clogged highways. Hours of time wasted day after day.
For those of us doing technical service, things changed when high speed internet connections became common. We could easily access our client's networks and systems from our own offices or homes. That cut down on the need for on-site visits, but didn't eliminate them entirely. There are times when you just have to be there.
Avatar robots have been out for a few years now, but because of the high cost, their use has mostly been to eliminate high end corporate travel. Executives of companies who can afford these can log on to an avatar at a remote office and apparently the experience is very close to "being there". Of course it requires ultra high speed network connections, and fairly expensive virtual reality equipment at the originating end, but it sure beats the cost and time of air travel. I've heard rumors that at the very high end (Microsoft and other super-corps), the avatars themselves are so realistic that employees have been at least momentarily fooled from time to time.
Well, prices are coming down for this type of thing, but are still far from anything a small business like mine can afford. That's why I was really excited to read about Your-public-avatar.com.
These folks have a network of virtual reality stations and avatars in cities around the world. If you are in Boston, and have a client in San Francisco, you can rent an avatar. You do have a little lead time necessary: the local avatar has to be delivered to your client's location, but usually that's no more than an hour or so, and sometimes even faster.
I was able to convince them to give me a demo in Boston. For this test run, the avatar was actually in the same room with me, but the internet links were separate, so the control data was traveling public networks - the avatar really could have been anywhere. With a little help from the friendly folks at Your Public Avatar, I quickly learned how to control my alter ego.
These aren't the high end models that may have fooled Microsoft employees, of course. No, these look more like the little robot from Short Circuit, though taller (eye level is adustable from 5' to 6' height). The VR is a bit limited too; you feel more like you are "driving" the robot than controlling it naturally. But the "eyes" are true stereo, with peripheral vision quite similar to a "normal" human. Although I was certainly aware that I was sitting in a VR chamber, the overall effect was quite realistic.
Well, sort of. The avatar has two fingers and an opposable thumb, so while Homer Simpson might find that "natural", I felt a little clumsy in the feedback gloves. However, feedback was excellent, and with a little practice I was able to pick up a CD and insert it into a computer drive, and then use that computer's mouse and keyboard as though I really were sitting at it. I'm a two finger typist anyway, so the avatar's lack of digits didn't bother me at all. The control was precise enough that I only had the slightest difficulty positioning the mouse where I wanted it - overall this was quite good! I don't think I'd want to try to thread a needle this way, but I guarantee I could replace a NiC card if I had to.
Unfortunately, the cost of this is still a bit higher than what I could ordinarily justify. Rentals are currently $150.00 an hour plus local delivery charges. Your Public Avatar expects prices to come down over the next few years though, so this may soon be a reasonable way to handle remote site visits.
Tony Lawrence 2007-05-18 Rating:
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