Telepresence: Where Am I?

By Robert Bernstein   |   July 11, 2023

Our Humanist Society of Santa Barbara followed other organizations in moving to Zoom meetings during Covid. But we do now have occasional social gatherings. At one such gathering recently I talked to a member who said she “hates Zoom” and will only attend in-person events.

I realized that she did not understand the concept of “telepresence” and I want to share this with you.

As defined by Merriam-Webster: Telepresence is “technology that enables a person to perform actions in a distant or virtual location as if physically present in that location.”

Telepresence provides the sense that you are in another place, and this idea can lead to a rich array of meanings and experiences. In recent years, telepresence is used to describe an immersive experience of being mentally transported to a distant location through virtual reality technology.

My good friend and mentor Jack Loomis was a pioneer in Virtual Reality (VR) for the purpose of psychology research. He wrote an excellent short paper for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Symposium on Virtual Reality in 1993. The title is revealing: “Understanding Synthetic Experience Must Begin with the Analysis of Ordinary Perceptual Experience.”

His point being that before we try to understand the mystery of telepresence, we first need to understand the usually ignored wonder of ordinary presence! As I wrote in my “You Are Dreaming Now?” article a year ago:

A “naive realist” believes that when they look out at the world, they are seeing the actual world. But this makes no sense. Your experience of the world is filled with color, pains, and tingles. But those things don’t exist in the world.

In fact, we take in sensory information and create a synthetic representational world, which is the world we really experience. Meaning that our ordinary life is one continuous VR experience.

Imagine dragging a walking stick along the road. Do you just feel vibrations in your hand? No. You “feel” the surface of the road just as if you ran your hand over it.

The modern da Vinci surgical robot came from a merger of Computer Motion (here in Santa Barbara) and Intuitive Surgical. Originally funded in part by NASA, surgeons are able to achieve telepresence at a very fine scale, as if they are down inside the patient’s body. All achieved through a few small incisions. At Computer Motion, I was able to experience a demonstration as if I were a surgeon. And more recently I was a grateful patient!

At the other size scale, a crane operator can have the telepresence of gently moving a massive, delicate piece of machinery into position on a rooftop. She is not aware of the levers she is moving; only the telepresence of the scaled-up movements.

I am also a grateful Zoom user. Once we allow ourselves to experience the wonder of telepresence, we can feel that we are in a shared space with the other Zoom participants. The result is that meetings that used to be small and local are now larger and global. And use vastly fewer resources than physical global meetings.

Think about how it is talking on the telephone. Most people feel that they are talking directly to the other person, rather than being aware of the device mediating the conversation. You can break the telepresence feeling by holding the phone away from your ear. The other person becomes a squawking sound from a tiny speaker.

As children, my brother and I would watch TV together and be transported to other worlds. Our mother rarely watched TV. When she entered the room, the spell would be broken. But she has an uncanny ability to read with great focus. At its best, reading can give us a similar kind of telepresence.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote the definitive piece “Where Am I” in which he imagines his brain has been removed from his body for a dangerous mission. His brain and body are linked via radio and are separated by hundreds of miles. He feels that he is where his body is, not where his brain is. He goes on to imagine having multiple brains and bodies and other variations. A must read!

Telepresence can be so powerful as to override presence. I am often disturbed by someone walking straight toward me, looking at me and speaking. But they are on the phone, not seeing me at all. Presence and telepresence are willful states of mind!


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