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Virtual Collaboration in the Age of the Coronavirus


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Suitable Technologies' telepresence robot

Credit: Flickr

When the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the globe early in the year, and governments began enforcing lockdowns that forced people to stay at home to depress infection rates, videoconferencing technologies rocketed into public consciousness as never before.

Professional apps including Zoom, Skype, Webex, and Microsoft Teams were suddenly thrown into the hands of people who had never used them, alongside more social-media-oriented ones like Houseparty and Whereby, as people sought virtual connection and collaboration tools to cope with the stay-at-home and work-from-home orders.

The effect of this rapid adoption of video chat systems was dramatic. Suddenly, debate in the media and on social networks centered on which was the best app or desktop package, with users treating it almost like an exercise in comparative religion.

Uses for the technologies flourished along with those ballooning user numbers, with video livestreams suddenly dominating locked-down domestic and work agendas. From live exercise workouts to yoga and meditation sessions before breakfast, to gaming at a distance, to attending virtual church services and craft lessons, to online school classes and workplace meetings, as well as convivial drinking and socializing sessions with friends of an evening, Internet-based videoconferencing finally came into its own.

Enduring memes were born, too: perhaps one of the most memorable being Sting's online, at-home jam with The Roots, aired on NBC's Tonight Show. The combo played a "quarantine remix" of "Don't Stand So Close To Me" (surely one of the social distancing anthems of the lockdown) with improvised musical instruments.

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Figure. The ACM Publications Board held one of their annual face-to-face meetings via a series of Zoom meetings in July.

Yet despite the blizzard of media and social media coverage, videoconferencing technologies are just one way of collaborating remotely and eliminating the need for personal, commuter, and business travel. Developments in computer science and robotics ensure other options are emerging, involving the use of telepresence robots, drones, augmented and virtual reality systems, and even holographic teleportation systems, which can put a three-dimensional, life-size version of you in a target room anywhere on Earth with a broadband connection.

It is possible the still-unfolding societal changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic could see some of these alternate collaboration methods come to the fore in future lockdowns, perhaps due to new waves of infection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or mutated versions of it, or completely new pathogens.

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Signs from a Webcam Sellout

It is fair to say, however, that emerging collaboration technologies will have a difficult time reproducing the surprising, runaway success videoconferencing and group video chat apps experienced as the early 2020 pandemic lockdowns took hold. Carman Neustaedter, who researches interactive and collaborative technologies at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, British Columbia, says the first sign he had that video chat was on an unexpected ascendant was when he found the shelves cleared in online tech stores.

"I suddenly found I couldn't buy a new webcam; all the decent ones were sold out, everywhere. It was a sign of how quickly people were adopting videoconferencing tools. But that immediate shortage of the hardware to support it really surprised me," says Neustaedter.

That sales rush was indeed a sign of things to come, and in the following weeks, videoconferencing growth was stellar. For instance, Zoom alone grew from 10 million users worldwide in December to 200 million at the end of March, as the system moved from being an enterprise IT conferencing system to, frankly, something of an unlikely consumer product. Skype use was up 70% to 40 million daily users in March versus February, said a Microsoft spokesperson in Redmond, WA, who added the growth was accompanied by a 220% increase in Skype calling minutes. The professional collaboration app Microsoft Teams saw usage boosted 200%, from 900 million meeting minutes on March 16 to 2.7 billion on March 31, then a record for the platform, the spokesperson says.

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Defending the Castle

However, that runaway uptake rate came at a price: security, at least for Zoom, was found wanting as users found trolls could join any password-free, open virtual meetings and shock people with violent pornographic images or other content designed to generally disgust and disrupt. These intrusions quickly got a name: Zoombombs. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Google, and SpaceX were among firms barring Zoom use by staff on security grounds. Some Zoom user data was spilled onto the dark web, too.

All this resulted in Zoom Video Communications of San Jose, CA —which says it had been too sidetracked laying on extra AWS and Oracle server capacity to cope with all its newfound global users—issuing a hasty security update to the app. This placed user security and privacy settings front and central, allowing consumers, for instance, to easily and clearly password-protect their meeting URLs. "We've always had all kinds of security features built in, but normally enterprise IT teams would decide which features to enable and which to disable," said Zoom CEO Eric Yuan in a Bloomberg interview. He accepted the firm "made a mistake" in not having made those features easily accessible and understandable by people at all levels, from consumers to professionals, from the start.

"With the shift to online video meetings, you do have to have this kind of barrier," says Neustaedter of the locking-down of video chat systems to known, passworded invitees, and controlling who can be trusted to show content on screens. He says there is an interaction downside to that buttoned-down rigor: a lack of spontaneity, which reduces the chances that people experience idea-generating casual interactions with unexpected people—like an electronic equivalent of bumping into people "in the hallway, coffee room, or at the water cooler."

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Restoration By Robot

All is not lost, however; those valuable casual interactions can be recovered, to a degree at least, by switching from video chat apps to mobile telepresence robots. These wireless, remote-controlled, wheeled, flatscreen-display platforms go out into the world and act as a user's eyes and ears and, controlled from a laptop or phone, allow users to explore a remote workplace, conference, mall, street, or pretty much anywhere with flat surfaces where there's strong Wi-Fi. Because the robot can still randomly bump into people, they can experience the kind of informal verbal exchanges that video chat app users cannot, says Neustaedter.

Indeed, this London-based reporter can attest to the validity of this: at ACM SIGCHI's Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver, CO, in 2017, I spent a day using a Beam telepresence robot from Suitable Technologies of Palo Alto, CA, and the experience was both liberating and unforgettable. On top of attending sessions, my droid could trundle up to, and let me interview, HCI researchers during the breaks, in corridors, outside session rooms, and at the coffee stall, and even record interviews, and all from my desk in London. "It's those exchanges I think that telepresence robots are actually really good for," says Neustaedter.

Telepresence robots are already fielded commercially and have found some strong healthcare roles in the COVID-19 pandemic. "Venues are using our mobile telepresence devices to monitor inside areas that have been converted to hospitals. They are also being used to maintain the security of those venues, and doctors are using them to visit and evaluate patients quickly," said Steve Ernst, CEO of Event Presence, a company that provides Suitable's Beam and BeamPro robots to event organizers.

If further pandemic waves strike, telepresence is ready to step up again as a virtual collaboration technology by allowing people prevented by lockdowns from traveling to conferences and trade-shows to attend them instead via robot. "We have developed a way to onboard up to 1,000 people on the Beam. We can now bring remote attendees not only to an event, but also directly to the participating event company's showroom, corporate headquarters, or manufacturing plant anywhere in the world," says Ernst.

Those 1,000 people, seeing and hearing through just one Beam robot, will tour 15 booths in a 1.5- to 2-hour session, which Ernst dubs a "Smart Tour," taking in the booths of all the major vendors. For instance, at a flash memory event, remote users got to hear from the likes of Samsung, Toshiba, Sandisk, and Micron, Ernst says. "In fact, we don't really need a traditional conference, with booths, to operate the robotic tour. We simply bring the attendees to where the client wants them," he adds.

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Getting Personal

Pandemic lockdowns affect private lives as well as business lives, and Neustaedter's research group at SFU has been exploring telepresence's prospects in many everyday homespun scenarios, too. For instance, one SFU team gave one member of a couple in a long-distance relationship a robot, allowing their distant partner to be both robotically present and mobile in their apartment. For added "presence" effect, using a voice-activated system, the robot user could turn on the lights, switch on the vacuum cleaner, or turn on a slow cooker. The seven couples in the study found the robot lent them a stronger sense of sharing a home and a feeling of companionship versus communicating via video chat apps.

Still another SFU couples study found that sending a robot shopping with their partner was better than discussing what to buy on the phone: the remote user, embodied in the robot, mirrored their normal shopping behaviors (like which side of their partner they walk on, and whether they took off to look at goods alone) and were much better able to take part in joint purchasing decisions and accept responsibility for them. However, Neustaedter warns, "You just have to be really careful driving the robot, especially if you're in a shop that has very breakable items."

His group also cajoled some couples into having one partner trundle around as a telepresence robot around parks and urban areas to see how it fared as a walking partner on strolls taking in Vancouver's beauty spots, sometimes undertaking undemanding outdoor pursuits like geocaching—that is, hiding curious objects at certain mapped GPS locations for other walkers to find. While that provided a great way for the remote user to experience the scenery, the robots have little awareness of what's around them, from inclines they might topple down, to bicycles and people. Safety issues from potential collisions with members of the public, or damage to the expensive robot, were concerns; "We had to strap foam around the Beam robot just in case it fell, because they're so expensive," says Neustaedter.

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Send in the Drone

Robots, however, are just one kind of telepresent proxy that a remote user in some future pandemic lockdown might send off to explore some facet of the world. Further into the future, multi-rotor drones are another potential tele-present proxy, with ever-smarter, geo-fenced autopilots in control of them, and augmented and virtual reality tools providing user visualization.

A leading light in this field of drone-based telepresence is Xtend, based in Tel Aviv, Israel, which is honing its technology in the military space but has designs on the tourism, entertainment, mixed-reality gaming, and cinematography markets. Xtend's overarching aim is to allow people to don an augmented reality headset and, with very little training, send a local drone into an area they want to explore (think of the Grand Canyon, the sights of Paris, or the verdant waterways of the Amazon jungle), much like its military customers currently send drones for short-range reconnaissance on the Gaza border.

It is part of a move to marry AR and VR with drones that market analyst Accenture is calling Extended Reality (XR), in which user location ceases to matter. Instead of displaying recorded or generated AR/VR content, XR will display live 360-degree content. It is still very much a future prospect for at-a-distance virtual collaboration, not least because the amount of data needing reliable backhaul between a drone and a highly distanced user, with low latency, will be high.

On top of that, telepresence robots and drones alike are not yet trusted devices: people coming across them do not know who is controlling them or to where they are broadcasting video footage. "We found certain stores would not allow our robots in," says Neustaedter, during their shopping trials. In addition, VR-based solutions, he says, still need to solve one of its fundamental issues: the motion sickness experienced by many users.

That said, there is one emerging virtual collaboration technology that looks much more likely to be a near-term hit, at least for the deep of pocket: it's called the Holoportl, a "single passenger," life-size, human hologram transmission machine that's a little bit bigger than a phone booth. Built and sold by PORTL of Los Angeles, the machine has a 4K transparent flatscreen display on the front of a 3D lightbox that, in a patent-pending projection process, displays a 3D video image of somebody elsewhere in the world, in very-near-real time. The projected person gets audiovisual feedback from the room they have beamed into, and so can interact with the people there.

Holoportl proved its worth in the COVID-19 pandemic, says PORTL CEO and founder David Nussbaum. "At the moment, nobody can leave their homes, so we are being hired by doctors, speakers, educators, and politicians to beam them from the safety and security of their own homes or offices into classrooms and other places they need to be," he says.

The Zoom phenomenon in the pandemic lockdowns did not go unnoticed: Nussbaum says PORTL's road-map includes Zoom-style holographic software, which will allow multiple people to appear in the booth in 3D. He also promises "a few new things that'll blow people's minds".

"PORTL looks pretty cool," says Peter Ladkin, a researcher in safety-critical systems at Bielefeld University in Germany, and a frequent user of video-conferencing systems on global standards making committees. "But it will make the cat crazy."

* Further Reading

Zoom reports massive user growth after lockdowns, The Hill, April 2, 2020, https://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/490794-zoom-ceo-says-company-reached-200-million-daily-users-in-march

Blog Post, How to tighten security on Zoom videoconference meetings, Graham Cluley blog, April 15, 2020, https://www.grahamcluley.com/how-to-host-safer-zoom-meetings/

Heshmat, Y., Jones, B., Xiong, X., Neustaedter, C., Tang T., Riecke, B., and Yang, L.
Geocaching with a Beam: Shared Outdoor Activities through a Telepresence Robot with 360 Degree Viewing, Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 2018, https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3173574.3173933

Yang, L., and Neustaedter, C.
Our House: Living in a Long Distance Relationships through a Telepresence Robot, Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, November 2018, https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3274459

Holoportl: a single-passenger hologram system https://portlhologram.com/products-services

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Author

Paul Marks is a technology journalist, writer, and editor based in London, U.K.


©2020 ACM  0001-0782/20/9

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