Mark Zuckerberg suggested people would soon “hologram into work” even before the pandemic left offices empty
In a widely cited paper last month, Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson prescribed four solutions for the scourge of office workers the world over: Zoom fatigue.
Spending several exhausting hours staring into a webcam is far from the greatest challenge that the past 12 months have presented. But among home workers at least, it may be one of the pandemic’s most widespread side effects.
Bailenson’s is the first peer-reviewed paper that breaks down the psychological underpinnings of Zoom fatigue. He recommends we shrink the Zoom app window and put distance between ourselves and the screen, to preserve our sense of personal space. We should hide the “self-view” video window, remember to move around, and turn off the camera to go “audio only” more often.
However, Bailenson’s paper did not mention his fifth solution to Zoom fatigue, which, he tells me, might be his favourite: holograms. These holograms are not Star Wars-style projections but realistic avatars that we can see through virtual reality headsets or smart glasses so that they appear to be in our room.
Replacing flatscreen faces with a 3D representation of a whole person, sitting on your sofa, “takes away a lot of the problems” of video calls, says Bailenson, who has led Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab for almost 20 years. “The key thing is it retains the spatial geography for all these people.”
We could then pick up on body language and other vital non‑verbal cues, which go missing when we can only see someone above the shoulders. We would no longer have to stare intently into the camera but could look and move around a room more normally.
The technology that would make this possible is not here yet, but it is coming sooner than most people realise. Bailenson and his Stanford colleague Hanseul Jun recently demonstrated a system that can capture people in 3D and transmit their avatar across the internet to a headset fast enough to have a natural conversation.
If university researchers have managed this on an academic budget, you can bet that the likes of Apple are already building 3D FaceTime. Today’s iPhones have depth-sensing cameras that could be used to capture us in 3D.
All the big Silicon Valley companies are working on smart glasses that could place digital objects in our view. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg suggested that people would soon “hologram into work” even before the pandemic left offices empty.
By the end of the decade, many in Silicon Valley are confident AR glasses will be as ubiquitous as smartphones are today
Earlier this month, Microsoft — which has been working on its HoloLens headset for several years — unveiled Mesh, a cloud-based system for what it calls “holoportation”, which aims to “beam a lifelike image of a person into a virtual scene”, according to the company. Microsoft demonstrated Mesh with a “holograph laboratory” on board movie director James Cameron’s OceanXplorer research ship, so people on the boat and even on dry land can see exactly what deep-sea diving vessels are seeing.
Augmented reality is already a part of our video calls today. That includes the virtual backdrops that obscure our bedrooms and fun special effects such as the cat animation that a Texas lawyer accidentally discovered, creating a viral sensation.
The next generation of AR will use the same computer vision technology that put a kitten in that Texas courtroom to understand the world around us and place virtual objects within it.
In the corporate and industrial worlds, most AR demonstrations tend to show designers pacing around a virtual prototype car, doctors looking at holographic organs or trainee technicians getting instructions through their headsets.
But Bailenson doesn’t buy the idea that AR glasses will take off thanks to “an arrow fixing a sink”. “The killer app of AR will be people,” he says. “The moment I really got AR was when I saw a realistic human dropped into my room in the right space and the right size.”
AR telepresence is unlikely to be available to many people in the near term; a HoloLens 2 costs $3,500. But by the end of the decade, many in Silicon Valley are confident AR glasses will be as ubiquitous as smartphones are today.
In the meantime, there is a cheaper solution to Zoom fatigue: just use the phone instead.