May 26, 2011

Telepresence : First hand for the first time !

A decade and a half ago, in the early days of outsourcing of software development, when clients in the US were sceptical about the feasibility of teams working across vast distances we had coined a term : Geography is History. What we meant to say was with the rapid advances in communication and collaboration technology, the geographic location of members of dispersed teams did not matter any more and dispersed organisations could be as productive and efficient as localised operations. In fact in an earlier blog post, I have hypothesised the possibility of actually Deconstructing the Corporation.

While teleconferences, email, remote login, shared screens were all technologies that were used in these situations, the most coveted technology was video-conferencing. This was because the richness and intensity of the interaction was the highest with VC and yet because of bandwidth and other issues it was the most difficult exercise to actually execute upon. More often than not, it was the technology freaks who would use it the most while the bulk of the actual managerial work was usually done on tele-conference calls and stuff like Webex that allowed clear voice on telephone and live screens on the laptop. With the advent of Skype and Google Talk we had desktop video-conferencing but that was more of a one-on-one affair. So things stood, in my mind, until today ! when I walked into Tata Steel's Telepresence Room !

And this was mindblowing !

Imagine an oval table split into two halves. One side is me and some of my colleagues and on the "other side" are people with whom we wish to have a chat -- and the only trouble is there is no one on the other side except three huge screens with the live images of people who are thousands ( or in my case, hundreds, thought that hardly matters) of miles away ! I have seen this in TV ads but the real thing was amazing -- because the people on the other side are exactly at your level and the size of the image is exactly that of a live human being, the illusion of a "real physical" meeting is phenomenal. And adding to the effect is the fact that the two rooms at two locations are identical to the last detail. So just as a huge mirror on the wall makes the room larger, the presence of the image of the other room -- along with people at the remote location -- makes it feel as if we are in one huge room with people sitting at the other edge of a rather large oval table. In fact the presence of tea cups on the remote table is so lifelike that one may be fooled into trying to reach out and get a cup for yourself.

The quality of sound was such that even the tiniest whisper would carry over to the remote location, unless one would choose to mute the microphones and the 25 MBPS pipes ( of which I was told that only 16 MBPS is actually used) makes the video as smooth and as natural as physical vision. In fact, the illusion is so complete that I was left wondering whether there was anything more that one could do to enhance the reality of the digital image ... and then it struck me ! Why not replace the normal camera's at each end with 3D cameras and the display devices with the new 3D TV sets that are just becoming available in the market ? The challenge is of course the need for clunky 3D spectacles but that too might become a thing of the past [ see my earlier post on new age spectacles ]

In fact with the rapid emergence of these new technologies, a day may come when on meeting someone somewhere, we may be forced to ask "Are You Real"

May 23, 2011

Going Beyond Myopia -- New Age Spectacles

Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing the Pirates of the Caribbean : On Stranger Tides along with my son and was really impressed with the quality of the 3D technology. Not only was the spectacles that we used lighter but what was more important was that even with the 3D spectacles on, I did not have any difficulty in seeing the non 3D parts of the various movie trailers as well as the other people within the movie hall.

Which sets me thinking -- what would happen if our normal spectacles were enhanced with this 3D capability !

Television manufacturers seem to very gung ho on 3D technology and most Japanese manufacturers ( are there any non-japanese manufacturers  ? ) have already placed their products in their market. A recent ad by Samsung claims that even non 3D content can be made into realistic 3D imagery with the press of a button and the use of the correct 3D spectacles. This could lead to an explosion of 3D content and if the success and quality of 3D movies in theatres is anything to go by, then we can safely assume that in the next five years almost all visual content will be in 3D! The same thing would apply to content seen in non TV displays like computer monitors, game consoles, tablets and smart phones.

Given the proliferation of 3D content, why should we have to get special 3D spectacles for each gadget that we need to use ? Why not create general purpose spectacles that can be used across all 3D content ?

For this to happen, we first need some standardisation in terms of 3D display technology -- which is something that is certainly not impossible to achieve.

More importantly, why can we not build in this capability into the normal spectacles that we -- people with myopia or hypermetropia -- regularly use ? Today's spectacles are already enhanced with anti-glare, anti-UV, polarisation and many other technologies so it may not be too difficult to include 3D capability as an add-on that we can buy from the various spectacle-lens manufacturers. With these spectacles we will be able to see any 3D content being shown on anything ranging from giant movie screens to small hand held smartphones without any further ado. In fact the entire electronic media around us will automatically become far more realistic.

In an earlier post  ("Cellphones - the next generation" ) I had explored how a humble pair of spectacles can be enhanced to become the key access device to a whole world of visual information. In another post on the imminent convergence of the real and the virtual world ("Beyond Virtual Worlds -- Patterns of the Future" ) my hypothesis has been that 3D will become so ubiquitous that the border between the real the virtual will become very fuzzy.

For those of us -- and we are not a minority ! -- who have defective eyesight, a pair of spectacles is a very important device with which we see, explore and understand the world around us. From the perspective of the my earlier posts, I believe that this device will or perhaps could, play a very significant role in the way everyone gets to -- literally -- see the world.

As a first step in this direction, may I suggest that companies that manufacture spectacles explore the myriad opportunities that may be exploited with this device -- it can certainly do much more than simply correct defective vision. Wonder who will be the first to overcome the myopic short-sightedness associated with a pair of spectacles today !

May 14, 2011

The Pendulum Swings Again

When Kalyani Chaudhuri, the retired IAS officer from West Bengal started to write a book on the death of bureaucracy and governance, she thought that the Left Front Government would rule the state till the end of eternity. Her book -- When the Pendulum Stops -- recounts the depths of depravity to which a state can sink when it is ruled by one political party for a very long time. We are aware of one party dictatorships in the erstwhile USSR and in China but how is it that West Bengal with its periodic elections have had to share this fate ? Let us go back in time and look through a bit of history.

The communist parties came into power on the basis of the general mis-governance perpetuated by the ruling Congress party in the 1970s and the first thing that they did to ensure their permanence in power was "Land Reforms". We have been told ad nauseum that because of these reforms the economic structure of rural Bengal was revitalised to such an extent that the generations of voters have rewarded their benefactors. Unfortunately this is a lie but it is a Goebellian lie that has been repeated so often, that it is now accepted as truth. No one has really questioned whether the emperor had any clothes or not -- everyone was just too lazy to consider the following :
  1. The extortion of land from its lawful owners and "distributing" it to its cadres is a patently illegal and immoral act. You cannot distribute what you do not own ! [ This truth has come back to haunt the Party in Singur and Nandigram ]
  2. Even if you invoke the doctrine of eminent domain and use it to justify the actions of the state to force legal land owners to share the benefit of the land with the bargadars ( share croppers ) you create a ticking a time bomb. Once the owners lose access to the benefits of land ownership they have no qualms of selling the land to new owners [ industry ] and making a clean exit and this sets up the inevitable conflict between the new owner and the old share cropper. [ This is the second truth that has come to haunt the party again ]
  3. Robbing Peter to pay Paul can be done only once. Which means you can fool the people once or you can make only one set of people happy.
So the much vaunted land reforms policy was an eyewash and a measure of cheap popularity. Despite vigorous encomiums to the contrary, these so called land reforms did nothing to improve the fundamental economic structure of rural Bengal. Reams and reams of pseudo-economic papers have been written, mostly by left leaning academics who have directly benefitted by the patronage of the Party, but no one has ever had the guts to ask why the peasant in Gujarat or Himachal is significantly better off than their counterparts in Bengal. We are happy to point to our miserable neighbours to show great we are. Moreover, these forced breakup and distribution of land has led to such micro fragmentation of holdings that no modern agricultural technology can be brought to bear on these plots any more. Thus the ruination of agriculture is complete !

But if land reforms did not have any impact, how is it that the Party has thrived and prospered for so long ? How come that the pendulum of democracy that should oscillate naturally between the party in power and that in the opposition get stuck ? My explanation, written on the eve of the 2006 state election, is that the Party, much like is mentors in the the USSR and China, had taken on a vice like grip on all aspect of life and society in Bengal and even though most people could see through the hoax, there was  no way that they could escape from this grip. Just as the introduction of gunpowder had introduced an overwhelming asymmetry in medieval warfare, so did the concept of "scientific rigging" introduce a whole new dimension to electoral battles. Other political parties just could not cope up with this new phenomenon and could only howl in despair.

But as we say in Bengali ধর্মের কল বাতাসে নড়ে  , the wheels of justice are turned by the wind ! You cannot fool all the people all the time. The disenchantment against the ruinous deterioration of public services -- the collapse of schools, colleges, hospitals and other instances of social infrastructure -- could not but add fuel to resentment that was simmering in people's minds. To this was added the new found enthusiasm for modern industry ! After having sacrificed Bengals industrial backbone at the alter of militant trade unionism, the party suddenly realised that there was nothing more to extract from the rural population but the land that they were occupying. So let us take it away from them at a pittance and sell it to crony capitalists for another onetime windfall. This was what happened in Rajarhat but that success was the last one. The next two land acquisition attempts at Singur and Nandigram met with massive peoples resistance. The drives faltered, came to a shuddering halt and then was turned into an ignominious retreat. For the first time, people realized that the party was not infallible !

Mamata Banerjee, the David who had stood up to CPM's Goliath for the past decade and half -- when the rest of the official opposition was busy licking at the scraps that the party had thrown under the table -- was the one person who had not only felt the pulse but had the energy, the determination, the stamina and the conviction to pursue the goal of dislodging the party from its entrenched position. But despite her best efforts she would not have managed to do anything without the hidden hand of destiny and -- surprise of surprises, Mr Prakash Karat, the head honcho of CPM LLC in India ! This arrogant academic who believes that JNU student politics is the same as national politics took the incredible decision to burn the boat on which the communists were floating. Check out my post on Karat and the Deliverance of Bengal !

So whether it is the dawn of wisdom in Bengal or the tenacity of Mamata Banerjee or the stupidity of Karat or the painstaking work of the Election Commission, the voice of the people of Bengal has finally been heard and the voice bids goodbye to the communists. Sceptics would point out that the alternative is no better in terms of honesty and competence but as Kalyani Chaudhuri points out in her book, the existence of an alternative is by itself the best thing that could have happened.

Let the pendulum swing and let the bells toll -- to ring out the old and ring in the new, to ring out the false and ring in the true -- for years to come.