Perfect Remote Communication

November 3, 2011

Chapter 16 – Perfect Remote Communication

A way of gauging how much transmission of presence you are doing is by the kind of argument, and depth of the argument, that a communications system can handle.
Alan Kay

When I started writing this book I made a list of all the communication technologies that someone might use in their office. It started with telephones and ended with carrier pigeons. A lot of technologies on the list didn’t exist 10 years ago. 10 years from now there will be even more.

When new communication options become available, how do you determine if you should use them? Will they help you communicate or will they just get in the way?

The Dinner Table Criteria

The ultimate measure of a communication technology is dinner conversation with three or four friends. Everyone sits around the table in a quiet corner of someone’s home. Wine is poured. Delicious smells waft from the kitchen. You relax in your chair, among friends, and just talk.

You could talk about anything around that table. The conversation could shift from a fine meal you had recently, to politics, to family, to relationships, to sex, to friends you’ve known in the past, to people you know today, to your hopes and dreams. With some good food and a little bit of time the discussion could go anywhere.

This is the power of a effective communication system. The bandwidth is enormous, but manageable. You can read the people at the table. You can tell how someone feels just by looking at them. You have the information you need to engage in complex communication.

We can use the dinner table to create three simple criteria with which to judge other communication systems.

Depth. There is no limit to the type of conversation you can have over a dinner table. Try discussing art on an IRC channel or aesthetics in an email and you will quickly see the limits of some communication technologies.

Ease of use. A dinner conversation is easy to use. There are no complex setup screens, configuration, or user interfaces to learn. Anyone can sit down and join in.

Bandwidth. The bandwidth of a dinner conversation is enormous. Not only can you hear everyone’s voice with perfect accuracy, but you can see them with perfect clarity. Is someone tired? Are they well dressed? Do they look excited or bored? You can see them well enough to know the answer.

The Perfect Remote Communication System

Much of the way computer interfaces look today is the result of work by Dan Ingalls, Alan Kay, and others at Xerox PARC. I spoke with Dan and Alan about the perfect technology for remote communication and they both agreed: a wormhole, with a curtain over it for privacy.

Picture it. You are sitting at your computer and just to the side of your monitor there is a curtain that hangs in mid air. You open it and reach into another office to tap your teammate on the shoulder. They might be in the next room or across the world. They turn around and look you in the eye, face-to-face; rendered perfectly.

If we judge the wormhole with the dinner table criteria it scores extremely well. Is it deep? Yes! You could have any type of conversation there. Is it easy to use? Absolutely! There is nothing to setup or configure and everyone can understand a curtain. Does it have high bandwidth? Definitely! You can see the person in front of you as if you were in the same room.

Creating wormholes for personal communication will be beyond our abilities for a long time, but it is a useful way to think about remote communication. When you are presented with a new communication system you can use the same dinner table criteria —deep, easy, and high bandwidth— to judge it.

Apply the dinner table criteria to a video conference using Apple’s iChat. You sit in front of your computer and see a two or three inch moving picture of the person on the other side. Is it deep? Absolutely not. The blocky facial representations and out of synch voices do not support complex conversations. Is it easy to use? Not at all. You need to understand complex setup instructions, firewall issues, and IP addresses. Does it have high bandwidth? No. You can’t really tell if someone has shaved that morning, forget about seeing facial expressions.

Video conferencing scores low on all of the criteria. This explains why it isn’t popular for important communication.

Some technologies do well by scoring high on two out of three of the criteria. Instant messenger is easy to use: just click someone’s name and start typing. It is also reasonably high bandwidth, assuming you can type fast. It isn’t very deep, but that doesn’t matter as much for more trivial conversations. IM isn’t very good for a deep conversation with a close friend, but it is fine for quickly catching up.

Not all high scoring technologies need to be visual. The telephone scores highly on all three criteria. You can have a deep conversation over the telephone. It responds quickly and does a good job of letting you communicate in real-time. Telephones are easy to use: just dial the right number. Telephones also have enormous bandwidth. You can’t see what someone looks like, but a good quality phone provides high enough fidelity to pick out additional emotional information. You can tell if someone is happy, sad, or angry by listening to them talk on the phone. This explains why the telephone has been such an enduring communication tool.

The dinner table criteria also explains why bad cell phone connections are so frustrating. When your cell phone isn’t working properly it has almost no depth because you have to repeat everything you say. If you have ever pressed your head against a glass window or stood outside to get better reception, you know that cell phones can be difficult to use. And the tinny voice quality of a bad cell phone connection makes the bandwidth low. All of your effort is spent just trying to understand what the other person is saying. You don’t get any extra information.

When you consider a new communication technology think about how well it does compared to the dinner table. Many companies could have saved the money they spent in expensive video conferencing installations by looking at the depth, ease of use, and bandwidth of the technology.

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