Virtual Presence

Virtual Presence Services allow service workers to keep an eye on a wide variety of things that you care about.  People can add value in many ways by simply “being there”, even via an Internet connection (video or audio and usually both).  Service Export agents will monitor critically-ill patients, accompany workers at hazardous job sites, patrol potentially dangerous public areas, observe consumer behavior for market research projects, scan and screen visitors, and guard inventory.

 What Is Virtual Presence?

This category of services exists to monitor, protect, or evaluate things that are important to you.  The Internet, along with advances in digital cameras and image processing software, make it possible for people to “be somewhere” from almost anywhere in the world.

 Virtual presence applications include both commercial and consumer services, with a variety of locations and purposes:

§  receptionists will screen and greet visitors to homes and businesses.

§  remote location safety monitors will monitor parking lots, remote stretches of highway, or other locations to detect and signal events.

§  patient monitors will monitor patients and their vital signs and detect and signal problems that might require intervention.

§  vandalism prevention agents will monitor sites prone to vandalism, recording potential events on video and issuing alarms for local follow-up.

§  hazardous job companions will be a virtual companion to employees who perform hazardous work, sounding alarms for local follow-up if needed.

§  home security agents will keep an eye on your house while you’re not there.

§  inventory or job site guards will keep an eye on exposed business assets.

§  market research agents will observe and record consumer shopping behavior.

§  retail quality monitors will monitor employees’ interactions with customers, providing qualitative feedback and quantitative tracking information.

 As you can see, the range of service products in this category is very large.  Each of these services is an important function to businesses and to their customers.  And this category is surprisingly large.  The reception function alone is a multi-billion dollar market.  And, unfortunately, every day the security market grows bigger and more valuable.  Although these are some of the more mundane and even controversial service products (think about the privacy aspects), virtual presence services are likely to show early, strong growth.  And the future applications will expand the category even further.

 What’s Next?

The first wave of remote monitoring services uses existing capture techniques (i.e., cameras on closed-circuit TV systems), and simply re-routes the signal over the Internet to agents in another location.  This is already an interesting, albeit small, market.  The larger commercial potential will come as web cameras are combined with custom image processing software and workflow design for new applications like those described above.  Some interesting advance work is in labs in various parts of the world:

 “e-puppets” – Think of it as Kermit the Frog mowing your lawn.  OK, how about adopting Pinocchio, only he has a college degree and a slight Hindi accent?  The truth is, advances in robotic devices combined with wireless Internet connectivity have made possible a new breed of mobile, remote workers.  You can already find “inhabitable” devices that can roam around your house (and beam digital photos of any suspicious activity to you via e-mail), vacuum your carpet, mow your lawn, and operate your household lights, appliances and thermostat.

 The “e-puppet” devices you can buy today are expensive toys.  But they are also prototypes for what is to come.  These devices, and others like them, continue to come down in price and to increase their mobility and functionality.  Some have now incorporated voice recognition, speech synthesis, image capture, and wireless Internet connectivity.  These are all the ingredients needed for an “e-puppet” for your home.  Other e-puppets will climb walls, crawl through nuclear power plants, even fly, to allow people to keep an eye on things worth watching. Watch this space.

 Recognition software – these technologies allow computers to identify individuals by comparing a digital photograph of the person’s face or a sampling of their voice against a database of known persons.   Already this technique is being used to screen visitors to public events in the U.S. government’s anti-terrorism campaign.  More positive-minded applications include

  • “passive security” for physical access to places and electronic access for looking up information, paying bills, and sending and receiving communications.  Some of these applications will be fully-automated, but most will require a human agent to handle exceptions and questions and to signal the need for intervention by local agents. 
  • automatic qualification for service delivery.  In many cases, an individual who signs up for a certain service should not have to request it – the service can recognize her or him and fulfill tasks “automatically”.  For example, as a “frequent guest” at a hotel chain, I might opt to be recognized as I enter the hotel, triggering a remote agent to process the check-in, deliver any messages, and direct me to my room without my having to wait in line.

Like Sony Aibos or smartphones, face recognition technology is not linked in a direct way to Teleservices.  However, each of these used in combination with a high-quality, very low-cost workforce, creates huge commercial opportunities. 

 Virtual Companion – The expected arrival of affordable “wearable” computing devices over the next few years will bring Virtual Presence to an entirely new level.  Imagine a pair of eyeglasses that contain a computer display, headphones, a digital camera, and a wireless Internet connection.  The computer itself is in your pocket or purse.  This is not science fiction; the prototypes have already been built. 

 The service agent on the other end of the connection will see what you see and hear what you hear (or, in one application for persons with disabilities, the agent will see or hear what the wearer cannot and will help guide them).  The Virtual Companion may be a security monitor, a translator, a personal assistant, a trainer or coach, a tour guide, a parole officer, or just an escort.

 Further Down the Road (so to speak) – once the devices are available and the workforce is online, the possibilities multiply.  Imagine traffic controllers, not for the airlines, but for city streets.  Permission to run that stop sign late at night?  You got it.  Traffic lights that are coordinated from one block to the next?  Sure, why not?  Intelligent re-routing of traffic to adjust to unforeseen events?  Piece of cake.   100% enforcement of speed limits and parking regulations?  Ouch, but it could be part of the package.   And each of these services would make driving safer and more energy-efficient, and would get you to your destination sooner.

 Hey, it’s just an idea.  But think about it – someone is going to make a million bucks designing a “smart stop sign”.  It might as well be you.

(see a list of Virtual Presence services)