World Economic Forum (WEF) asked a group of international technology experts to identify this year’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies. After soliciting nominations from additional experts around the globe, the group evaluated dozens of proposals according to a number of criteria. Do the suggested technologies have the potential to provide major benefits to societies and economies? Could they alter established ways of doing things? Are they likely to make significant inroads in the next several years? “Technologies that are emerging today will soon be shaping the world tomorrow and well into the future – with impacts to economies and to society at large”, said Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American, and chair of the Emerging Technologies Steering Committee. In our constant lookout for the origins of innovation, IO will present WEF’s top-10 emerging technologies in a 10-part series. Today: Collaborative Telepresence.

After part 10 has been published, the whole series can be found here

Imagine a world without smartphones; no email, no Skype or Google Hangouts, no WhatsApp or even SMS. How would we communicate with a person far away? Send a letter? Now imagine a group of people in different parts of the world smoothly interacting as if they were physically together, down to being able to feel one another’s touch. The components that will enable such “collaborative telepresence” could transform how we work and play together, rendering physical location irrelevant. Just like the communication tools of today have done that before.

Medical providers will be able to work remotely with patients

Just like massive multiplayer online games have radically altered how people interact on the internet, collaborative telepresence could transform how people collaborate virtually in business and beyond. Medical providers, for instance, will be able to work remotely with patients as if they were in the same room. And friends and families will be able to enjoy shared experiences, such as being together in a cosy room or touring a new city, even though they are not actually in the same place.

Progress in several realms has made this prospect feasible. Augmented reality (like Dutch Rose Media, for example) and virtual reality technologies are becoming capable and affordable enough for widespread adoption. Telecom companies are rolling out 5G networks fast enough to handle masses of data from advanced sensor arrays without lag times. Innovators are perfecting technologies that enable people to physically interact with remote environments, including haptic sensors that make it possible to feel what their robotic avatars touch. The full sensory immersion envisioned for collaborative telepresence will require lag times substantially smaller than those acceptable for video calls – and they may sometimes tax even 5G networks – but predictive AI algorithms could eliminate a user’s perception of time gaps.

Dramatic changes

Although collaborative telepresence is still very much emerging, all the pieces are in place for it to become transformative within three to five years. For instance, Microsoft and other companies are already investing in technologies that are expected to underpin a multibillion-dollar industry by 2025. And the XPRIZE Foundation has launched the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition (sponsored by All Nippon Airways) to kick-start technologies that will “transport a human’s sense, actions and presence to a remote location in real-time, leading to a more connected world”. The WEF Emerging Technologies Steering Committee concludes: “As the parts are knitted together, expect to see changes in daily life and work that are as dramatic as those sparked by the widespread adoption of smartphones.”

(Most of this article is drawn from the 2019 Top 10 Emerging Technologies report)

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