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January 16, 2012

Virtual Boring Agent


I've seen this Virtual Boarding Agent a couple of times now at Orly Airport in Paris. A It's a life-sized, life-like, two dimensional human figure that talks pleasantly about liquids and gels. It's spooky, clever, and very well executed - and most people seem to ignore it after a first casual glance.

I therefore feel sorry for its designers, and for the airport managers who deployed it. Billed without too much exaggeration as a "futuristic travel experience", it must have taken an age to develop, and cannot be cheap. But the traveling public appear to be so saturated with input that this mini-marvel barely grabs their attention.

Once, when my flight was delayed, and I spent half an hour watching the thing, I daydreamed that this could be the teleconferencing toy - sorry, tool - I've been looking for. I'm desperate to replace my shameful flying for work with virtual talks and workshop - but the transition is proving slower than I had hoped. It occurred to me that perhaps a holographic JT, plonked onto the podium at the allotted hour, might be an acceptable substitute.

Then, as I observed how underwhelmed were the Orly passers-by, my optimism waned. Tensator, who made the creature, seem also to have modest ambitions; they describe their fabricated life-form as a "next generation digital signage solution" and "a unique advertising and instructional platform to convey your brand messaging".

I've explored the subject of telepresence - and why, for the most part, it sucks - in numerous marvelous papers. I'm stuck. Even though the first videophone was launched with much kerfuffle back in 1964 (at the New York World's Fair) it seems that technology simply cannot and will not recreate what it is like to be in a meeting with people somewhere else. People seem to want to breathe the same air, and that's it.

And yet, and yet. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about kissing the picture of one's beloved. "When we kiss a photograph, we do not expect to conjure up a spectacular manifestation of the person in the picture represents—but the action is nonetheless satisfying.” So: who will be the first to invite me to give a talk - and be happy when I send a family snapshot to represent me?

Posted by John Thackara at January 16, 2012 09:43 PM