Sunday, June 13, 2010

Nifty Gadgets 2

One of the reason I like the 'nifty gadgets' being developed today is for the ideas they might spark for future stories, or for ideas to use in building the worlds in which my stories are set.  Sometimes though it takes more than the original gadget itself to make this happen.  It is when you combine two or more gadgets that funky ideas can be sparked.  For example...
Teleconferencing is a widely used tool in business today.  The ability to meet and talk with people anywhere in the world without leaving your office has numerous advantages. 
Telepresence and telerobotics, the ability to reach into environments to manipulate objects, particularly in environments that are dangerous or difficulty for people to go, has been used in deep ocean oil drilling, bomb disposal and medicine.   
Now, there is a company that combines these two technologies for the business world.  A company called "Anybots" has developed robots to allow you to 'commute' to any office where one of them is installed and then move independently through the office to meet, observe and interact with the people there.  Some of the advantages cited by the company on their website include: 
*The ability to join office conversations at any time without the need of going to the conference room.  
*Being able to see what's going on in the office and determine when would be a good time to approach people.  
*Create more 'face time,' even when you're not there, allowing people the opportunity to approach you with questions or suggestions they might not phone you about.  
To be frank, I'm not sure as to whether or not Anybots will take off.  While I think the concept is intriguing, I believe its implementation might be somewhat off-putting.  Will you really be apt to strike up a conversation with something that looks like an IT with a computer brain controlling it?  "Hey, boss...  I had an idea about the new product line.  Here, let my wipe your lens for you first."  And imagine how freaked out someone might be if they are typing away at their computer and look up to find this 'bot at the entrance to their cubicle watching them.  Definitely a creep-factor there.
Then, I read about another nifty gadget...
Optical Camouflage
The 'invisibility cloak' has long been a staple of science fiction and fantasy.  Phillip K. Dick is credited for being the first writer to use an 'active camouflage suit' by name in his 1974 novel, A Scanner Darkly.'  As described by Dick, the 'scramble suit' used a flexible sheath that covered the body coupled with a holographic lens on the user's head which transmitted the camouflage pattern to the sheath.  
There is ongoing research to create such a suit.  In 2003, professors at the University of Tokyo, one of whom started the company Tachi Lab, created a proof of concept system that used a video camera to film the scene behind one of their students wearing a coat made of reflective material and projecting that image on to the cloak.  While it didn't render the student completely invisible, it did demonstrate how such a system in the future could allow someone to literally blend into whatever scene an observer might be seeing.  
A functional camouflage suit is probably decades away.  There are applications of such technology that can be developed more quickly.  For instance, what if while driving your car you could have its interior 'disappear,' replaced with images of the area surrounding your vehicle?  There would be no blind spots to worry about before making lane changes or turns (though you would still have to look around your fellow passengers).  A surgeon wearing surgical gear made of such material could have his body disappear, leaving him an unobstructed view of his patient.  If applied to a building's interiors, you could look out on your backyard to watch your kids play, or make your front door invisible to see who is knocking while remaining behind solid walls from their perspectives.  And it wouldn't have to be a real time image that you see either.  If you enjoyed the view from the bungalow in Tahiti you rented on your last vacation, you could  surround yourself with it whenever you entered your bedroom.  Or you could indulge some exhibitionism by having the interior of your shower show you a jungle waterfall.  
It was while thinking about this last application of optical camouflage that I remembered the Anybot.  I then asked myself what would happen if you combined these two nifty gadgets.  If the Anybot was covered in a shroud that projected the image of the person using it, it might not be so strange to talk with it.  With advancements to the quality of the projection, we might reach a point where an observer might not realize that they were speaking with someone's bot.  
And with that thought came something of a 'mind-flip.'  Would combining personal robotic stand-ins with optical camouflage technology lead to our real world becoming more like the sort of networked experience we have online?  We already have multiple persona that we manage in the internet.  Facebook accounts, job networking sites, dating services, massive multiplayer online role-playing games, each of these services ask us to create accounts or 'avatars,' a name used by a company called Second Chance offering you a simulated life, sometimes with visual representations of ourselves, to interact with other people's accounts or avatars.  
Would robots with appearances that could be customized to whatever you wanted it to look like lead to us treating the real world in the same way we treat our online presence?  The answer to that question might be found in the answer to this one: How many times have you wished you could be in two places at once? 
Imagine: You wake up in the morning.  You glance at your alarm and realize you've overslept.  Damn!  You have to be a meeting going over new production procedures in three minutes.  
You run to your computer and activate your workplace bot.  You select a nice design for a suit by Armani that you picked out last weekend and project it on to the bot.  Optimizing its interaction protocols for recording, and setting an alarm to chime if called upon to speak, you send it to the conference room and leave a window open for it on your screen.  
Your calendar reminds you of a breakfast date with someone you met online.  She's in Paris on vacation and wanted to meet over coffee & croissants.  You rent a bot, use a image of yourself from last year, after you got back from that exercise camp, and send it walking along the Seine to the appointed cafe.  You make the window controlling that bot your main window, putting your meeting window right next to it.  
You then rent another bot in Chicago.  You got word that there's a company there opening a new production unit and contact from your job-search network got you an face to face interview.  You rent a high quality business bot in the same building as the company.  Fortunately the interview doesn't start until right after the meeting, so...
And so on...  Do I think we'll ever live like this?  I'm not sure.  I don't think so.  But then again, I didn't think I would have a group of 'friends' (via Facebook) a number of whom I have never met face to face.  What I do know is that the possibility of such a life does, in some form, exist.  And exploring it through fiction to see what it might say about how will deal with each other is something I want to do.  

News & Updates
I finished writing a rough draft for a new short this week.  I posted it to an online writing group I'm a member of for reviews and feedback.  The working title is 'Brother Like Me.'  It's based on an incident that happened to me when I was traveling in Japan where I met someone from another part of the world in a convenience story.  I tried to write it out in one 'splurge' to get it out before I over-thought it.  It has something to do with how we decide who out there is 'like us.'  This week I'll be working on rewriting a draft I finished a few weeks ago called 'Emil & Broombridge,' about a 'dive-pilot,' a pilot driving a ship using engineered hyperspheres, that is set in my Tauian Adventure universe.  I hope to start submitting it after that.  
I also finished an introduction for my comic 'SoftMetal' that will be coming out this summer and sent it to the publisher.  No word yet as to when it will be out.  I'll definitely post details here when I have them.  
Finally, I've decided to post my blog entries every other week, starting with this one.  I want to take more time researching my topics and figured extending the posting date by a week would allow me to do so.


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