Monday, March 17, 2008

Synchronous collaboration -- working in different places at the same time

Several years ago -- before the Web was invented -- I was at the home of a Russian networking pioneer. I noticed that he had a computer in his living room that was connected over dial-up phone line to the Internet connection at his office. He told me he had called the office six months earlier, and, since there was no charge for local calls within Moscow, he never hung up the phone.

The cost of Internet connectivity is fixed -- you pay a flat fee for the month. That fee structure encourages same-time collaboration. Consider the way this programmer describes his work day.

He works with a colleague in a different state, but they remain in constant communication -- as if they were in the same room. Like my colleague in Russia, they open the connection between them when they arrive at work, and leave it open all day. He mentions using several networked applications -- Skype (VOIP), IRC (chat), Wiki (for documentation), and VNC (screen sharing) -- to facilitate collaboration.

(The recorded comment was made by an audience member at a panel discussion on attention).

But, can we have rich, emotional communication over the Internet? In 1980, artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz connected larger-than-life video displays in Los Angeles and New York using a satellite link. They called the event "Hole in Space," and it was The Mother of all Video Chats. They demonstrated that, with sufficient bandwidth, emotion and presence could surely be communicated. Here are some video excerpts from their experiment followed by a short public-policy rant.