Thursday, 10 December 2009
For many, the Internet as it stands is still inaccessible. Why? Because of literacy standards. Because it is still text based. Because it is still mainly in English, not Swahili or French or Spanish etc. Because it is 'scary'. Most people do not conduct their daily communications via text or through a keyboard - they speak, gesticulate, roll their eyes, react to body language and so on. Yet, this is still difficult for the average person to do using the current technology available to the masses.
Yes, we are moving towards more video content, but for the average person who is comfortable in their own skin but not on a keyboard, we still live in a world where much of our communication is not possible using a camera or a video link.
The infrastructure which would allow us to video conference etc is just not there in many parts of the world. Yes, there are mechanisms for doing so, and many manage to use video, albeit somewhat jerkily, to communicate with others, but it is not easy, nor even possible in some places. (Skype video here? Hmmm, not so it becomes a practice you would adopt as quickly as just going to a meeting and touching flesh with the people you need to talk to).
There are problems with coding and codecs. As memory etc has become more easily available, so coding has become looser, using the bits available, meeting tight deadlines etc instead of programming very tight, memory restricted, efficient code. Instead of being able to easily video conference with suitable quality of service, it has actually become harder as it uses more resources - eg bandwidth and processing power.
But where is the biggest problem? In the infrastructure that is required to carry full-motion, colour video so it feels as natural as a conversation. Whilst people keep rabbiting on about how 2Mbps is plenty, the reality is that it can't physically carry the necessary information to make video conferencing, or other forms of visual interaction, possible.
For instance, 2Mbps is not sufficient for telehealth, or education over video. By a very long chalk. It isn't sufficient for me to have a conversation 'as if I was there' with one of my kids when I am away on business. And whilst I may be able to communicate with them over text, email, on a voice chat, etc the lack of physical and visual signs that we all rely on as humans means that there are often important clues that we miss that make the interaction far less valuable than it could be. To both parties.
Video is the killer USE of the fat pipes. It will become the justification for them. Anyone who has failed to see this, and who still thinks that "content" means that stuff that Hollywood, the music industry, the BBC etc produce, is missing the way things are going. Interactivity will not mean pressing a button to vote for some trivial ex-celebrity. Interactivity will mean communicating with others, whether they are family, friends, peer groups, colleagues, the medical expert for our condition, a teacher, your MP, etc.
I remember standing next to Stephen Timms, watching a group of school children in Alston, competing with pupils from a school in the Midlands - and I say "with" because the teams were made up of pupils from both schools - to make a giant paper airplane over a video link. Up here in Cumbria, it is rare to see anyone who has different colour skin, or hear different accents in daily life, let alone talk to them, work as part of a team with them etc. The benefits and undoubtedly changed attitudes that resulted from that video session are numerous, and almost impossible to replicate without physically shipping kids around the UK. However, the kids couldn't continue their new 'friendships' from home, because the bandwidth required for 2 way video like this is just not available.
Imagine a physiotherapy session required by someone who is housebound due to their condition. At present, you need either a taxi or an ambulance to take you to hospital. That's an 80+ mile round trip for someone here. You then work with your physiotherapist to train your muscles back to life. This has to be done 'in person' because the physiotherapist needs to closely monitor your reactions to new exercises, to understand which muscles may require extra work, see your grimaces of pain and so on.
However, in many instances, this type of therapy could be conducted over a suitable video link. You could be in your home, not requiring the resources of an ambulance, taxi, nor to extend your carbon footprint to reach the hospital. Current and planned 'broadband' infrastructure is totally insufficient to make this possible without FTTH or fat pipes.
Let's go one step further. Project Natal gives some sense of how animation and great coding, including AI (artifical intelligence), could be used in future to deal with many issues, freeing up scarce human resources to carry out work which could not be carried out by an avatar.
Imagine that person who needs to be encouraged to carry out their physiotherapy every day, at home someone who is lonely, who is shy, who is agoraphobic, who needs to socialise but doesn't know anyone. Project Natal type programming could help to build confidence, listen to problems, bring people out of their shell, enable people to communicate about issues they struggle with. And so much more. Your imagination is the only limit on this one - get pondering!
But whilst you may want to do this on your XBox, there are times when this interactivity needs to be shared with a professional. Perhaps a GP who can see that the anti-depressant prescription is wrong for this person, or a psychologist, or a teacher or learning mentor with a difficult pupil. That requires a video link over the appropriate infrastructure to do that.
Once you start to think of all the possibilities for video, on a PEOPLE based level, not a monetary one, then you really begin to get how totally inadequate the current proposals for a USC, for 2Mbps, for asymmetric connectivity, and for Digital Britain really are.
Take away the shareholders, the policy tick boxes, the need to win seats, the use of public funds, and think purely about the PEOPLE. The consumers of this technology. Ask what people want, first. Then think about how we need to deliver it. Not in a piecemeal, this'll do for now fashion, but to reach an eNdGAme where the people who make up this nation are being best served. Think about your neighbour, the person sitting at the desk next to you, or on the Tube. Your family members, friends, the stranger in the doctor's surgery, the farmer down the road. Think about how being able to use video, invisibly, seamlessly, as part of their daily existence could change their life. What could it do for them, or for you? For your life, your business, your community, the nation?
Imagine health, education, security, communication, support, love, friendship, public policy directives, meetings, business deals, conferences, and everything else you can think of delivered on an "as if I was there" network.
And next time someone tells you that the USC of 2Mbps or any type of asymmetrical connection is fine for years to come, put them right.