We need more than holograms to bring us together

Senior reporter

Super-super-fast internet could enable a whole new set of communication technologies but nothing beats human interaction

Predicting the future can be a risky business. If you’re trying to understand how technology will affect your company in years to come then getting it wrong could cost you dearly.

The diversity of opinions represented in a new report on the future of the internet, however, suggests successful futurology probably involves luck as much as art or science.

The report, Killer apps in the gigabit age, canvassed views from over 1,000 experts from industry and academia on the technologies that will emerge over the next 10 years as internet speeds commonly reach 1 gigabit per second (around 1000 times the current UK average).

Some respondents seemed to think that within a decade we would be living in a brave new world populated by 3D walking holograms, while others were sceptical we’d even be able to reach such speeds on a widespread basis – never mind create world-changing technology applications.

But the idea of ever more immersive and realistic methods of teleconferencing was perhaps the most common theme of the report. From the comfort of our homes, so the thinking goes, we’ll be able to effectively transport ourselves across the world, seeing and hearing what’s going on in a meeting as if we were really there while projecting a holographic avatar for others to interact with.

Supposedly we’ll travel less and communicate more. We’ll even be able to take full-time jobs in places far from our homes without the need for a lengthy commute. We could fill skills shortages using overseas talent without some of the social implications of immigration.

But at the risk of making myself look foolish in ten years’ time, I for one remain sceptical of this holographic future. Firstly, there’s the fact that for realistic holograms and fully immersive virtual navigation of a location in real time we need technology advances far beyond faster internet connections (think Star Trek’s holodeck and mobile holo-projector).

Without such a system, no teleconferencing system would be able to replace the experience of interacting with people in real life – and probably even with it. Anyone who’s travelled for business should know the conversations you have on the way from the airport or in the corridor or at lunch are as important as those in the boardroom or in the lab – and sometimes more so.

Even if you could hear every conversation in the room, notice every bit of body language, “touch” the products or technology you needed to examine and navigate freely around the site you were virtually visiting, you’d still be out of the loop the moment you switched off your transmission and returned to your living room.

Improving teleconferencing would be a welcome move but no one travels for business unless they have to: either they need real interaction or they don’t. It’s the same reason why the argument for building high-speed internet instead of high-speed rail falls so flat.

So what will super-super-fast internet mean for us? From an engineering point of view, not enough attention has probably been paid to improved machine-to-machine communication. The ability of an entire supply chain’s worth of factories operating in synch, virtually controlled and redefining just-in-time manufacturing, is an exciting prospect. Pulling together huge amounts of data from sensors in real time from around the world to study the performance of technolgies is another.

But as one questionnaire respondent said of the next big killer app:  ‘If I knew what it was, I’d be building that instead of filling out this survey.’