Telepresence: the state of being present at a distance. It might sound like something out of science fiction, but BT is working on how to make it happen using familiar technologies, including the humble telephone.
Businesses such as construction rely heavily on close collaboration between team members, yet the people involved may be continents apart, never even meeting. BT's work will create conventional situations on the computer - for instance sitting together round a conference table - and will find electronic ways of replacing the chat by the coffee machine.
The telepresence research is looking at all the issues of how a team works together. The technology covers anything from the telephone to issues to do with how people handle information - though much of the research concerns far more advanced multimedia aspects.
'We are trying to enable people to work together, not just to provide information,' says telepresence campaign manager Graham Walker.
Conventional telephony only provides an empty audio channel, whereas increasingly people will be able to hold their conversation or virtual meeting and be able to refer to some shared visual background, images or CAD models, for example. The infrastructure facilities will be there day-in and day-out, but will 'stay interesting because of what people are doing', says Walker. 'You will not always want to use all the options available, but you will have the flexibility to do so,' he adds.
But there is still a long way to go for people to become used to holding group meetings long distance. 'For all the talk of conferencing, telephony is predominantly one to one,' says Walker. 'Generally, 'many to many' conversations - the sort of thing you see on the Internet with bulletin boards and large chat sessions - will become more mainstream.'
Individuals understand the 'one to one' aspect; while broadcasters know all about the one to many. 'Many to many' is the interesting one, says Walker - part communications, part broadcasting.
Online collaboration introduces new ways of working, he says. 'It is different to physical meetings, and initially less efficient. Part of our research is to address those barriers. It is about process change and culture change, and not just the technology.'
BT's first steps down this road can already be seen in a recently launched service called Conference Call Presence. This is a regular audio telephone conference for up to 20 people, some or all of whom have access to shared computer information - a spreadsheet, Web addresses or Word document, for example. A window on the computer screen shows a representation of who else is in the meeting and what facilities - computer or telephone - they have. 'What you have got is the beginning of a shared virtual presence,' says Walker.
He generally uses Conference Call Presence a few times a week, even with people on the same BT site. 'I typically get a bigger turnout than for a physical meeting. Although I am not offering free coffee, everyone knows the meeting is not going to tie them down for the whole of that hour.' People can sit at their desks and get on with other things until they are needed. 'You become an evangelist after you have used the system three or four times,' Walker says.
Another development is the Forum where three dimensional images represent the people attending a meeting. Simple animation is used - raising your character's hand shows you want to speak, looking at a watch might indicate things were dragging on, documents can be put in the middle of the table for everyone to look at.
But these ways of commicating have a fundamental disadvantage compared to meeting people in the flesh. A meeting space is very formal, but there are a lot of intangible ways that people communicate, explains Walker. Important ideas come up over chats in the corridor or at the coffee machine.
BT is researching innovative ways of overcoming what might at first seem an insurmountable barrier, by creating new ways to spread information and keep people in touch.
'A lot of the expertise and knowledge in a company is not written down,' says Walker. 'Even the world's greatest search engine couldn't find it.' Formal databases of information don't really put you in touch with the people who did the work.
'We are offering interesting new tools, but there is a danger of overloading people with complexity,' add Walker. 'One of the key things is personalisation, making systems work for you as an individual.'
His colleague Nick Kings is looking at how this might be possible. 'As we introduce more and more computing into life, things tend to get more and more complex,' says Kings. 'We give people more power, but we increasingly have to find ways of helping them use it.
'What we are looking at is using the computer to monitor what you are doing, pick up your preferences and find out proactively things to help you work.'
Even with today's systems it can take hours to customise a computer to your preferences, so Kings is developing software 'agents'.
An agent is a simple computer program that runs on your behalf and typically doesn't need any intervention to make it work. It gets on with its task in the background, which could be something as simple as checking your e-mail. The agent can personalise applications or go off and find information for you.
It could fire off Internet searches on your behalf, or put you in contact with people in the field you are working in.
This work on agents is also leading to a better understanding of what knowledge means to a company, and how to propogate that knowledge.
One priority is to build up communities of people with common interests, who can share information. This system is already in use in BT's telepresence campaign, and agents draw attention to papers of potential interest that members of the team have accessed. 'I get an e-mail from the agent to tell me that someone has found certain information and thought it might be of interest - the agent knows my profile,' says Walker.
The telepresence work includes looking at different ways of representing information, and of showing who is available to talk, what they are interested in, how to reach them and so on.
'One thing we are good at with current systems is reflecting black and white interaction,' says Walker. 'But a lot of real life is grey. You can choose when you walk down the corridor whether you want to talk to someone you see or not.' The idea is to reflect that in these systems, so that you are aware of who is there, but you are not forced to talk to them.
'We have a remit to try and live the future,' he says. This includes Walker and his colleagues trying out their own ideas, but 'at the same time realising that we are a fairly unusual bunch of people and that we should not be viewed as the sole test market'. He adds: 'This is why we are interested in things like collaboration with construction companies to assess them in a very different environment.'
'Construction is usually quite a social environment,' adds BT Laboratories senior solutions analyst Steve Towndrow, who is business support manager for construction. 'The site is a focal area where people are bumping into each other all the time.' That has to be preserved.
'A lot of studies into what makes people tick in their jobs reach the conclusion that it is just as much about chance meetings as formal meetings and scheduled conference calls,' says Walker. In BT's future world the idea is to have some of the things that make the real world tick reflected in the telepresence situations, so that chance meetings can be facilitated when people are ready for them, and people can see what others are reading or working on.
The information garden is one of the concepts being developed. This is a 3D shared space, where community members are shown as 'avatars' - icons representing people. Agents monitor what community members are doing, and show the avatars representing them as closer to the centre of the garden if they appear to be available for an online meeting with the other members. 'Information trees' have 'flowers' which display the results of documents of interest found by information agents, coloured to represent how new they are.
A mix of image processing and computer graphics can already make it look like people are in the same place, but at the moment this can only be 'through the window' of the computer, with no real sense of coming together. The long-term vision is of the 'through the screen' conference, with people in different locations apparently round the same table. And with augmented reality you will not have to remove yourself from the real world - you could keep an eye on the real world and see the additional information right in front of your eyes thanks to a lens on a wearable computer.
One day, there could even be the 'wearable conference space' - an image on a tiny screen giving the feeling of sitting round a table with colleagues all of whom are hundreds of miles away.
Lisa Russell reports on research by BT that could change the way people email@example.com