Death of Distance

Are we getting closer to the death of distance? Or are the technical challenges for truly meaningful human communication still too difficult?

In her book, The Death of Distance, Frances Cairncross makes a cogent argument that distance is becoming irrelevant as the communications revolution unfolds (and as bandwidth and connectivity accelerates over the internet). Written in 2001 and updated last year, it’s an excellent read — if you at all enjoyed Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat — since it is communications technologies (and the reduction in cost of their use) that is accelerating the flattening of the earth and our ability to communicate with others regardless of where they are physically.

But how close are we in connecting us in ways that are human?

I find videoconferencing to be flat, stilted, not terribly enjoyable and that it’s *very* difficult to build any kind of relationship with the person(s) on the other end of the connection. In my opinion, there isn’t an acceptable replacement for face-to-face interactions….yet.

Right out of college in the late 1970’s, I went to work for a manufacturer’s rep firm selling consumer electronics. One key line for us to rep was Hitachi consumer products. At the time, Hitachi wasn’t very well known and they were striving hard to build their brand as a cutting edge, world class player.

At a dealer event, Hitachi showed a demonstration video of their thin film transistors and how someday they might be able to be connected together to make displays of any size. The video starts out with a family in Los Angeles opening Christmas presents under their tree having a fun time. The camera pans up and there appears to be *another* Christmas tree and another room! As it turns out, it’s a complete wall of thin film transistors displaying a video feed of Grandpa & Grandma in New York. The family in LA and Grandpa & Grandma in New York are interacting as though they’re in the same room and the distance of nearly 2,500 miles has evaporated.

Anyone with a modicum of technical acumen understands how tough that would be to make happen. The bandwidth required, the cost of the display, the placement of cameras and microphones on each end, handling the latency (“Hi Grandma”…….pause…….”Hi grandson”) and other issues make a demonstration like this still pretty far away from reality.

In this weeks issue of New Scientist magazine is an article about the “Halo Studios” from HP that are geared to replicate sitting across a conference table from participants elsewhere in the room. But look at *this* description of the technology to pull it off:

Each Halo Studio contains three large plasma screens fitted into the wall opposite a large conference table. A fourth screen hangs above these and can be used to display presentations to everyone simultaneously.

The studios are connected via a dedicated fibre-optic line capable of transmitting 45 megabits of audio and video per second, meaning a video delay of just a couple of hundredths of a second at each end.

Let’s see…three plasma screens at roughly $3k apiece; a fiber line of 45mbps (I have NO clue on the cost of this but a 1.5mbps T1 lines is $600k-ish per month); the cameras and microphones; so maybe a Fortune 100 company could buy this but not an individual.

There is, however, personal communication technologies that are increasingly viable and surprisingly intimate.

I have a webcam (Apple iSight) for my Powerbook. While in California recently, I connected it up and had a nice chat with my wife and two kids with jerky, aliased video that was actually decent. Since the resort hotel I was at had wireless internet in the room, I could stand up and walk around to “show” them my room, the view, and the enormous closet (it was huge and worth showing!). We had a fun and nice chat.

Clearly we already have a relationship and this just made it easier to communicate (my son even showed me his homework, stuck out his tongue at me, and used his fingers to tease his sister with rabbit ears).

Though interconnectivity between Mac’s and PC’s is doable, it’s still quite a technical challenge for most people. However, I can already visualize this:

  • Ubiquitous wifi that is essentially everywhere and low cost
  • Webcams built-in to desktop and laptops that is simple to use
  • Mobile devices with cameras that can “turn in to” webcams that are even easier to use.

Are we five years away from this eventuality? Three? Ten? Tough to predict…but the technology is coming together quickly and now it will remain to be seen how we will adapt and grow our use of this “death of distance” and how we’ll figure out how to be social, warm, human and even how we’ll build *new* relationships as we transmit digital bits over great distances…bits that represent the essence of us.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.