MIT’s wormhole could make a window for remote workers

There’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation, but that hasn’t stopped businesses and technologists from trying to bridge the distance that can separate us using telephones, video conferencing, fancy robots, and now wormholes, to give the illusion of being there. The latest version of connecting people via the web comes from the Boston Globe, which profiled a new “wormhole” connecting the Stanford and MIT campuses.

The device is a clear plastic dome hovering above and below a cafeteria table that helps focus conversations in what can be a very noisy room. There’s a video feed as well. What tripped me out was the focus spent on creating a casual environment that could be conducive to spontaneous conversation. The designers didn’t want a microphone because it would look more like a “witness stand” and the audio quality would still be poor, and claimed that for similar reasons, Skype (s msft) wasn’t the answer for their needs. From the article:

[Kevin] Brown, president of Brown Innovations of Boston, came up with the idea of putting one dome above the table and another below, to capture and focus the voices and help filter out background noise.

The overhead dome has three speakers that bounce the sound off the dome and focus it toward the diners; below are three microphones positioned to collect sound from people’s mouths. The shapes of the domes create a whisper chamber-type effect, where sound is focused and directed to the listener’s ear. Brown initially rejected the idea of an overhead dome – “I realized the easiest way to do this seemed a little ridiculous,” he said – but he came back to it in the end as the best solution.

This reminds me of other efforts to connect people via broadband in more natural ways. There are the telecommuting robots that can roam physical offices while the remote employee controls the robot and “sees” what the robot sees, and offices that try to use Skype or other always-on connections to offer windows connecting two places. In fact, as companies try to boost collaboration while reducing travel expenses, there are common elements that emerge from the many efforts to create these windows or wormholes.

They are always on: A key element is the spontaneity of popping by one of these windows to see who might be there and engaging in conversation. Video conferences and even Skype video calls can lack that because one tends to check in before hopping on to take the video call. Thus, it’s not for casual conversation, but doing business or holding meetings.

They use high quality audio and video: Nothings worse than a stuttering video connection when you’re trying to tell a joke or show off a new haircut, dance move or whatever. In the same vein continually saying, “What?” kind of takes the fun out of any conversation.

They are in common areas or are voluntary: The MIT/Stanford wormhole is in a cafeteria. Some companies put Skype walls in their hallways. The key element is that these links between colleagues are in public places. I can’t think of anything more uncomfortable than having a desk right by one of these things, so my every move was being broadcast, but I’d love it if I could tune into a GigaOM HQ camera every now and then to see what’s up in San Francisco.

They rely on low-latency connections: This is tied to the audio and video quality issues, but is worth its own line. The broadband connection for the window has to be high quality enough that the video and audio travels at close to real-time speeds. It’s jarring to watch someone’s mouth move when the words don’t line up with what their lips are saying. This is why, for example, services such as Google Hangouts have a recommended minimum broadband speed for those using the service.

They are easy to use: Again, this one relates to the always-on element in some ways, but unlike the arduous corporate video conferences of the last decade, even if this window isn’t always on, it must be easy to turn on. You shouldn’t have to ask an IT person to set this up. It should be as easy as sitting down and flipping a switch, or selecting your office to look in on.

I’m sure there are other elements to consider (maybe wheels?), and some things may rank more highly for some offices or locales than others, but in general the trend to use broadband to bridge distance is one I’m excited about. As a remote worker, it links me with my team members while as a broadband enthusiast I like it as an application that will encourage faster and better broadband to develop. And frankly, until we figure out how to teleport, it’s the next best thing to being there.

For those who are keen to learn more about this sort of thing, watch my colleague Mike Wolf, interview a telecommuting robot here: