No bandwidth broad enough

Our ability to communicate across distance continues to improve, but will being online ever be equivalent to being there? Should it be?

Back in the 1970s, at the time of the first "oil shock," when gas prices spiked, researchers at the Institute for the Future conducted a study of what was then being (optimistically) called the "telecommunications/transportation tradeoff." The hope was that virtual meetings could take the place of the real thing, thereby saving money as people substituted electronic media for physical travel. However, the study concluded that there was no tradeoff. In fact, the opposite was true: The more people communicated with others, the more they wanted to travel to meet in person.

Why? While telecom (conferencing, texting, email) is useful for routine communications, there appears to be some kind of deeper connection that happens only when people meet in person. And when something difficult or sensitive needs to be discussed, there seems to be no substitute for doing it face to face. (As one frequent participant in remote meetings told me, he wanted to be able to pound on the desk of the person to whom he was talking to drive home an important point.)

Some two decades after the IFTF study, I had a chance to get direct evidence of the relationship between online and in-person connections. In the early 1990s, I helped launch SeniorNet, a pioneering online community for older adults that provided a variety of forums and chat rooms for members to use. The network was very successful in enabling seniors to meet new people and to participate in everything from sharing gardening tips and discussing political matters to getting support after losing a spouse. But then members who had initially met online spontaneously started organizing a series of "bashes" -- informal get-togethers in different cities where people who had met online could meet in person. Many friendships and even a few late-life marriages came from connections that were originally made online but were reinforced and amplified by face-to-face contact.

From narrowband to broadband

Of course, when SeniorNet started in the early 1990s, online communications were fairly primitive. We were still very much in the world of slow dial-up modems. In 1991, the state-of-the-art modem communicated at 14.4kbps; by 1994, modem speed had doubled to 28.8kbps. At these speeds, online communication was largely limited to text-only messages. Sending even a low-resolution photographic image was a slow, cumbersome process, and sharing video was virtually impossible.

With the arrival of broadband at the turn of the century, the bandwidth available to ordinary households began to increase. As of the year 2000, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, just 3% of U.S. households had a broadband connection, while more than 10 times as many were still on dial-up. Just four years later, in 2004, broadband users had increased to a quarter of all households. Today, more than two-thirds of households have broadband, while just a relative handful still use a dial-up connection.

Average speeds for broadband users have also steadily increased. When I first began using broadband, I was happy to get download speeds of 5mbps, which was 178 times faster than my old 28.8kbps dial up connection. When I recently ran a test of my current cable-based broadband connection, I found that my download speed was now 33.7mbps, which is over 1,000 times faster than that dial-up link. And the bandwidth available to me is about to massively increase again: AT&T has announced that it will soon introduce its fiber-optic-based GigaPower service, which will provide speeds of up to 1gbps -- another 30 times faster than my current broadband connection -- in my hometown of Cupertino, Calif. (Someday, even 1gbps may seem slow: a team of researchers in the U.S. and the Netherlands just reported achieving a transmission speed of 255 terabits per second using a new type of optical fiber.)

As broadband has gotten broader, the media that it can deliver have gotten richer. Transmitting high-resolution photos is now quick and simple, and it's getting easier and easier to share video clips. Live video calls, once the stuff of science fiction, are now an everyday reality thanks to applications like Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts. While these services have room for improvement technically, they are a boon to people who are separated geographically and want to see and talk with each other -- like grandparents and their grandchildren.

Getting social

The powerful appeal of social media also testifies to people's strong desire to connect with each other. More than 1.3 billion people now have Facebook accounts, which they use to share all sorts of activities, thoughts and images with friends and family members. In fact, one of the biggest stories about the evolution of the Internet over the past decade has been its shift from being mainly a means of accessing information to a new way to connect with people. (Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014.)

The power of social media is particularly evident among young people who grew up with it. How important it can be in the lives of many teenagers was driven home to me when I heard a researcher from USC describe a high school student in Los Angeles who had forgotten her Facebook password because she never logged out of the service. While this may be an extreme case, the Pew Center reported in 2013 that 90% of people in the 18-29 age group use social media regularly, and the proportion of teenage users must be approaching 100%.

More than a game?

Another place where emotional bandwidth is high is in the universe of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as Ultima and World of Warcraft. These cyber-games have attracted millions of passionate users who spend large amounts of time in highly interactive, visually rich fantasy worlds working closely with others to pursue challenging quests. Even though these games take place inside fictional environments, the connections between people can seem very real to the participants.

Because of the power of these games, they have attracted the attention of a number of scholars and researchers who have reached some interesting conclusions about their impact. For example, a survey by Zaheer Hussain of the University of Derby in the U.K. found that one-fifth of MMORG players said that they preferred socializing online to offline. In her book Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle of MIT reports that exploring different roles in online games can help some players expand their emotional range. And John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox PARC, has argued that participating in MMORPGs can help players develop the complex social skills that make them more valuable employees.

Within the business world, a wide range of new, more powerful tools and technologies have emerged to help groups of people connect and collaborate with one another. At the high end, videoconferencing has evolved into "telepresence" that typically makes use of paired sets of rooms with large high-resolution video screens and high-quality stereophonic audio to simulate the experience of meeting in person. Not surprisingly, these rooms require elaborate equipment and very-high-bandwidth connections. Telepresence networks also need to have very low latency (delay) in order to eliminate audio and video delays (delays of even a few milliseconds can break the sense of a real-time conversation).

One thing is for certain: As there is more convergence and competition among once traditional video, voice, and Internet services, and as new services like telepresence emerge, we will need more modern communications laws that do not subject these innovations to outdated regulatory silos that could stifle their growth.

Have we reached the telecom-transportation tradeoff?

Clearly, we now have many more options for communicating electronically with others. And the increase in physical bandwidth has almost certainly led to an increase in "emotional bandwidth" that lets us connect in richer, more satisfying ways. Yet despite all improvements in digital communications -- or because of it -- the desire for people to meet in person is apparently greater than ever. The truth of this hits me every time I go to an airport and see planes full of people regularly arriving from and departing to everyplace.

In fact, the increase in air travel has kept pace with improvements in communications. In 1950, a total of just 31 million people flew on commercial airlines globally. By 1986, the number of air passengers worldwide had reached a billion; by 2004 the number was 2 billion, and in 2014, more than 3 billion people will fly commercially. And as international travel has expanded, so has the total number of miles flown, growing from 17.4 billion passenger miles in 1950 to 3.4 trillion in 2012, due in part to a large increase in international travel.

The future of emotional bandwidth

As technology continues to evolve, will we ever get to the point where being online is essentially equivalent to being there in person? Earlier this year, Facebook placed a big bet on the power of immersive media when it spent $2 billion to acquire Oculus, a small company that has developed a headset that allows users to "enter" a 3D virtual world. When an Oculus user swivels her head, her view shifts accordingly, which reinforces the sense of being in another world. Samsung, the world's largest smartphone maker, has partnered with Oculus to unveil the Gear headset that provides a mobile virtual reality experience with their Galaxy Note smartphones. (The one demo of the Oculus technology that I've experienced involved taking a ride on a virtual rollercoaster. It was quite convincing viscerally, but I have not had a chance to interact virtually with another person via Oculus.) It is interesting to speculate about how Facebook and other tech companies will integrate this technology into their existing services.

Perhaps the ultimate form of telepresence was portrayed in the 1990 film Total Recall, based on a story by Philip K. Dick. In the movie, people who cannot afford to travel to exotic locales for vacations can pay a fee to have a "real" memory of having taken such a trip artificially implanted. Of course, being the movies, one such implantation procedure "goes horribly wrong ... and the fate of the world hangs in the balance."

Attempting to go beyond mere telepresence, which generally focuses on re-creating static, sit-down meetings, a company called SightDeck KC has developed what it describes as a next-generation system that allows people in different locations to see and interact with each other and with dynamic data displays. The company claims that its system will "permit new kinds of collaboration" that will reduce the need for business travel. We shall see.

From telepresence to copresence

Finally, my colleague at the Institute for the Future Rachel Hatch has questioned whether the goal of advanced communications systems should be to provide a feeling of actually "being there." Instead of pursuing "telepresence," which tries to maximize the sense of physical proximity between people, Hatch has proposed that it may be more useful to support "copresence" which attempts to maximize "attentional proximity" -- the ability of co-workers to focus on the same thing (a task or a problem or a dataset) and work on it together. She notes that new kinds of tools are emerging that are intended to enhance the way we collaborate. An example is MindMeld, an AI-based conversation support tool that can "listen in" on a conversation, analyze what is being said, and automatically provide access to resources relevant to the task at hand. The goal of copresence is not just to give a sense of "being there" but to provide an experience that is "better than being there." Even though there may never be a completely satisfactory substitute for being together in person, it may well be possible to make better use of our time apart.

Richard Adler is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. He has written widely about the future of broadband and its impact on fields such as education, healthcare, government and commerce.

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