The MIT Media Lab is launching a new research initiative - X-Reality. Broadly speaking, X-Reality will focus on the integration between the virtual and real worlds at several levels. The new initiative aims to bring together related Media Lab projects in this new area, to share their diverse viewpoints and research approaches, and hopefully accelerate progress. A series of weekly seminars has been organized, and I was invited to speak to the group a few weeks ago. Let me share some of my comments.
I have believed for a while that the killer apps for new interactive, immersive, visual interfaces will be virtual meetings, and distance learning. Everything else being equal, physical meetings and classroom learning are much preferred over their virtual and distance counterparts. But, as we well know, this is not always possible, or even desirable. That is why telecommunications and networks have been among the most successful technologies in history - from the telegraph and telephone, to the Internet and mobile devices.
It is stating the obvious to point out that many meetings cannot possibly be held in person, especially when the participants are in geographically distant locations, and when different meetings in the same day involve different people in different locations. Moreover, many workers consider it a godsend not to have to travel hours just to attend a short meeting that they can more efficiently handle electronically from their homes or offices.
So, the real research question is not which are better, virtual or physical meetings, distance or classroom learning. Rather, the key question is: what is the right balance of physical and virtual interactions needed to have really effective working meetings and learning experiences? We all pretty much agree that even though you often have to work with people that you have never physically met, it is far better to work with people that you have met physically at least once, and even better, that you continue to interact with them physically from time to time.
Why is that so? Why is it important to have the proper balance between physical and virtual human interactions in good X-Reality applications? One of the nice qualities of the Media Lab, which is justifiably renowned for its focus on leading edge innovation, is that no research question is off-limits, as they might perhaps be in more classic, formal departments. So during the seminar, I raised the hypothesis that perhaps there is something like Social Pheromones that we humans exchange when we meet physically, which get imprinted in our brains and then make subsequent interactions, whether physical or virtual, more satisfying.
Pheromones are chemicals produced by living organisms that signal their presence and triggers a behavioral response in other members of the same species. Pheromones are particularly associated with sexual attraction and reproduction, but they have also been identified in other activities very important to a group, such as raising an alarm when there are predators around, and properly delineating the group's territory.
I am using the term social pheromones not in its strict scientific sense involving chemical signals, but as a metaphor for all the signals - chemical, visual cues, verbal intonations, etc - that social animals, - including humans, - use for establishing the coherence of their group. People clearly use lots of such non-verbal signals, and in fact, this is a serious area of study at the Media Lab. The more we understand the social signals humans use for non-verbal communications, the more we should be able to explicitly use them in virtual interactions to facilitate those communications.
You somehow expect that when you first meet someone physically, you imprint their persona in your brain, a kind of image formed through both explicit communications and implicit, non-verbal signals. Subsequent interactions, whether physical, via phone, the Internet or anything else, will likely rely on the image of that person imprinted in our brain to provide a context for the interaction. Thus, one might speculate that if we have never met the people physically and have only formed our mental image of them via virtual communications, the image is likely to be much less accurate, and the personal relationship will not quite work as well.
But, what is the right balance? For example, more and more universities are establishing an international presence. If you are teaching a course in an international outpost of your university, as is increasingly happening, what is the minimum number of physical interactions needed to have a satisfying learning experience? How well would it work, for example, if a professor with small children, travels once a month to physically lecture while teaching the rest of the class from their home base through sophisticated distance learning platforms including virtual world interactions?
Research into these X-Reality subjects is both fascinating and very important because we will learn not just a lot about how to have effective work and educational interactions, but our findings will enable us to develop far better virtual meetings and distance learning technologies and platforms.
We need something. The Graphical User Interface (GUI) that continues to dominate the way we interact with most IT applications is over thirty years old. Think of all the advances in every other area of IT over the same period. A major reason I feel so positive about the potential of virtual worlds and related subjects is that after thirty years we need massive innovations in user interfaces. I am hoping that these new visual and X-Reality technologies can eventually get us there.