Will Surrogate Attendees Start Appearing at Conferences?

Author: David McMillin       

The sharing economy has empowered consumers with a range of new affordable options. Instead of paying for an individual taxi ride, passengers can split the cost of getting from here to there in an Uber Pool. Instead of making a reservation at a hotel room, travelers can find cheaper — and often, bigger — accommodations via someone’s shared home on Airbnb. Now, a new technology wants to give people the ability to attend a conference face-to-face without ever physically visiting the venue.

Jun Rekimoto, Ph.D., professor, interfaculty initiative in information studies at The University of Tokyo and an AR/VR researcher affiliated with Sony, unveiled the technology at MIT Tech Review’s EmTech conference in Singapore last week. It’s called ChameleonMask, and it’s a human-focused telepresence system. “A surrogate user wears a mask-shaped display that shows a remote user’s live face, and a voice channel transmits a remote user’s voice,” Rekimoto’s lab website states. “A surrogate user mimics a remote user by following the remote user’s directions.”

Let’s say someone wants to attend a conference in Seattle next week, but between the costs of a last-minute flight and a busy work schedule, it will be impossible to be there. Instead of registering for a virtual experience, the prospective attendee would hire someone in Seattle to show up to the venue. Before the “surrogate human” — can you imagine that being your title? — goes to the conference, he or she might have a video call with the remote user to get a sense of their body language and their motions.

Rekimoto said it’s “surprisingly natural” in his presentation at EmTech, and he recommends finding a surrogate similar in height, body type, and gender for a smooth experience. Despite these suggestions, it’s hard to imagine an interaction with an iPad-powered human as feeling anything but very bizarre. Still, it’s easy to see some overly enthusiastic tech pioneers exploring the possibilities of asking someone to strap an iPad to his or her face and go shake hands with people. The remote user might look forward to distance-networking opportunities, but imagine the challenges at the registration desk. Who’s checking in for the conference? The attendee’s face or the attendee’s body? And how will organizers prep speakers for the awkwardness of looking at a room full of screen-faced bodies? Unless those speakers are themselves surrogate users. Hmmm….

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