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Virtual Reality Cannot Yet Replace Real Life Presence

I’ve seen some discussions on various mailing lists about attempts to virtualize conferences as a way to save money for participants, given outrageous travel costs these days. Believe me, as an avid conference-goer, I and my wallet couldn’t agree more about travel costs. However, technology isn’t there quite yet, at least not for what makes conferences and other social meetings important.

The talking head portion? That’s easy. You can, and in fact anyone can, record a talking head session, where the presenter gets up in front of a crowd and chats about whatever. In fact, for PodCamp Boston, we have an mDialog channel that does exactly that. You can watch pre-recorded talking heads in advance of the conference, get whatever you can from those presentations (if you have recorded sessions from other PodCamps, please post them to this channel!), and then show up at the actual event with a better idea of what questions you need answers to.

Here’s why technology still fails at the most important parts of presence. First, there’s a technical limitation. Our human sensory systems are calibrated to three dimensional space, to perceive five different senses, and to do so all in parallel. Virtualizations like Second Life and Google Earth deliver more or less two of our five senses, and omit a tremendous amount of data.

Second, there’s a contextual limitation. Have you ever been to a conference in which another participant catches your attention? How much of that was a verbal, obvious gesture and how much of that was non-verbal communication? Even with Qik, Seesmic, Utterz, and all the other forms of rich media communication, our devices and our use of the devices is still so poor that we miss most of that data.

Second, there’s a metaphysical limitation. Think about it for a second. The technologies we use to represent sight and sound on computers are calibrated to a very narrow spectrum of visible light and audible sound. As a result, we automatically get a diminished experience. For example, no virtualization currently transmits infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths – thus, you never feel that sensation of body heat when you get closer to someone at a virtualized conference. Think that’s not important? Watch when a conference gets underway, and see how many times people touch – shake hands, hug, pat each other on the back, and so forth. Part of touch’s magic is the infrared spectrum.

The computer can’t deliver ultraviolet, either. Classic example: you can put up a picture of the sun on your 34″ Apple Cinema Display and you will never get a sunburn. The virtualized experience can’t deliver because we’re not transmitting that data.

How much other data don’t we transmit? How much else is lost? If you believe in the power of prayer and the ability for someone to spiritually heal another person, you can bet our technology does not transmit the extra data that the in-person experience undoubtedly contains. If you believe that chanting Sanskrit mantras has power, how much resonance do we create when we chant that’s outside our range of audible sound but is still very much a part of the experience?

This is why conferences still matter. This is why even though MP3s are ubiquitous, the live musical performance is still irreplaceable. This is why human intimacy is still desperately sought after even with the most robust technology solutions we have available to us.

It’s foolish to believe that technology can replace the full experiences of being there in person. Absolutely, there’s benefit and gain to be had by recording, podcasting, and streaming events for those who are there and those who can’t make it, but don’t think for a minute that current technology can replace the in-person experience.

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