Has the process of interacting with other human beings become too much for you, but you don’t have the heart to ditch your social obligations completely? Then you’ll be very interested in what virtual reality researcher Jun Rekimoto showed off at MIT Tech Review’s EmTech conference in Asia this week.
Called the “ChameleonMask,” this apparatus allows you to be a member of the outside world in spirit, all from the comfort of the couch you decided was more important than society. Basically, this telepresence helmet allows for a FaceTime-like experience that is piloted by a surrogate body. This surrogate shows up to whatever function you wish to skip, wearing headgear with a screen strapped to the front that livestreams a remote user so they can interact with the world around them.
There is a public line of communication in the helmet that allows the remote user to speak to the room through a voice channel, and a private one, where only the surrogate can hear the user (the surrogate can still be heard by everyone physically around them, so the team behind the device suggests they speak at a lower volume). There are also written commands the user can send to the surrogate that will pop up on the screen from which the surrogate views the world.
When conducting experiments with the device in 2015, an iPhone 6 was placed in a Hacosco VR helmet so the surrogate could use the smartphone’s camera function to see the real world around them. The main screen featuring the remote user's face is attached to the front of the helmet with the iPhone behind it, placed in such a way that the camera isn’t obstructed. There is also a feed of the remote user that the surrogate can see in the corner of their screen, as seen in this video.
According to the team’s study, the choice to use a surrogate human body instead of just an autonomous robot with a screen attached was because “Humans inherently have crisis-control capacities and ﬁve highly developed senses. If the remote user can ﬁnd a surrogate who looks like him or her, the impression of his or her appearance can be maintained.” Basically, the more your surrogate looks like you, the more seamless the illusion of it actually being you will become.
Jun Rekimoto—the deputy director of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc.—says the whole process feels “surprisingly natural,” and his team conducted studies to see just how comfortable people would be around these surrogates. The results were much more positive than anyone had imagined.
While they believed the participants would “look at it in disbelief, and immediately request the surrogate to remove it,” they found that people “seemed to believe that the remote user was in front of them” and that they were having a conversation with the person on the screen, not the body standing in for them.
There’s no commercial model of the ChameleonMask available yet, so for now you’ll have to brave your niece’s dance recital in the flesh. But in the not too distant future, a lucky surrogate can become the social butterfly you were never meant to be.