Since the invention of the telegraph, humans have been able to communicate across great distances in real-time. Today, we can choose among myriad technologies — radio, telephone, video conference platforms — to connect with colleagues and loved ones in different time zones, countries, and continents. These technologies create a telepresence — a sense of nearness between living beings separated only by space.
“The purpose of telepresence is to connect people who are alive,” says Hiroshi Ishii, the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, where he directs the Tangible Media research group. “But what about communicating with people who are no longer with us? That is the aim of TeleAbsence, our speculative design project. We attempt to bridge the vast emotional distance caused by bereavement. To create the illusion that we are communicating and interacting with a loved one who has departed. And to discover whether this illusory communication can help soothe our grief.”
Launched in the late 1990s, the Tangible Media research group works to give the virtual world a physical form. The group has invented tangible interface technologies, developed urban planning and simulation tools, and designed dozens of user interface devices that facilitate a merger of real and virtual environments.
The TeleAbsence project, supported, in part, by the Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST), is one of the group’s most ambitious efforts. In addition to blending the real and virtual worlds, it also probes — and imitates — the way humans process feelings of belonging, love, and loss. Originally inspired by bereavement, the project has evolved, and now addresses other forms of loss and emotional distance.
Dialing up past lives
“My practice has always explored the way objects and environments create identity and preserve memory,” says Danny Pillis, a graduate student in media arts and sciences and affiliate of the Media Lab. “And I’ve always been fascinated by the way experiences imprint themselves into the human mind.”
For the TeleAbsence project, Pillis collaborated with faculty and students at the Berklee College of Music and Xiao Xiao at the De Vinci Innovation Center in Paris to build the AmbientPhoneBooth. A personal immersive media environment, the AmbientPhoneBooth is an actual phone booth where users can connect with places and homes from their past. The user enters the booth, sits down, and dials a number on a rotary phone. A slow crescendo of sounds emerges, a heartbeat that then morphs into the cadence of a train traveling along a track, and then into a soothing lullaby. Designed by Ziaire Trinidad Sherman, the audio soundscape is controlled by the rotary dial.
A beguiling and seamless blend of technologies across time, the AmbientPhoneBooth juxtaposes legacy technologies like rotary phones and locomotives with state-of-the-art virtual reality headsets and computation. “I am particularly interested in artifacts and media that predate and also anticipate the birth of modern computing,” says Pillis. “I want to see how these tangible artifacts can be advanced by contemporary technology. In a sense, it’s about connecting the Industrial Revolution with the digital revolution.”
Inspired, in part, by the Wind Phone in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture — a deactivated phone booth that thousands of people visit each year to “speak” to lost loved ones — the AmbientPhoneBooth is a work in progress. In the future, the user will be able to input family photos, home movies, and highly detailed scans of their childhood homes, and then experience these images as a hyper-real virtual reality recreation. At present, the virtual reality headset recreates the past experiences of a family home in Pittsburgh. “The goal is to create a template for future home media,” Pillis explains. “To provide people with the tools to create interactive virtual memories of a home or place they once inhabited. We all share a common human story, of space and place and identity.”