Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Being together without travelling

Christmas is a time for being together, with family or with friends. But it is not a good time to travel, with bad weather often disrupting trains and planes and the roads clogged with extra traffic even when there hasn’t been an accident bringing progress to a standstill. Fortunately, there are other ways to contact family without actually being there, and they have come a long way from my childhood when there was only a phone with a huge handset and only one of us could talk at a time. These days:

  • You can put the phone to speaker mode, so groups can take part at either end.
  • You can wear a head set, and talk while moving around (exercising, cooking…)
  • You can use a phone with a camera (or a web cam) and have video as well as audio.
  • You can use a tele-presence robot which gives you freedom to move and look around at the other end.



With tele-conferencing I can't catch someone's eye.
In my business we sometimes use teleconferencing, using video to bring two groups of people together. It is a great step forward from just audio or web cast. However, it isn’t the same as being there – in particular I can’t catch someone’s eye because they can’t tell which person on the screen I am looking at. With a tele-presence robot you are much closer to being there.

With a tele-presence robot you can take an active role.
I was struck by how far tele-presence technology has come when I read this review (IEEE Spectrum) of Ohmni, a robot that is so easy to use that your granny who doesn’t know which way up to hold an iPhone can manage it. The only thing she needs is access to a WiFi network and a power socket. The robot arrives preconfigured with the WiFi login details – you have to tell the supplier this and they set it up before dispatch. All Granny has to do is take it out of the box and plug it in to charge. You connect to the robot via the OhmniLabs website and it powers up and announces you. You have audio and video – (you need a camera and audio at your end) and you can make Ohmni move about and look where you want to, almost like being there (though it can’t manage stairs ). When you are done you park it back at its charging station. It does the final docking itself.

In the review, the robot is used by family to contact an elderly relative who is too far away to visit as often as they would like. This comment says it all for me: Once I was in front of Gerry with Ohmni’s camera and screen engaged, he was able to focus in and enjoy. It made for a richer communication than a phone call and it’s easier for him to access than Skype or FaceTime since I was able to be in control. While not as good as in person, it was a meaningful step closer than a phone… and saved a lot of commuting time!

You can get a tele-presence robot for the same cost as three smart phones.
Ohmni costs $1,499 (presumably more with shipping to the UK). That is around three times the cost of a high end smart phone. This is not affordable for everyone, yet, but it is getting there. Also you can share the cost with other people in  your family who also want to be able to call that person, or others in the same house.

If they don't respond to your messages, with Ohmni you can go looking.
There are privacy issues. You need to work that out with your recipient. Ordinarily you don’t want to burst in on them with no warning. However, in case they persistently don’t respond, with Ohmni you can take the initiative and go looking.

You need good internet - upload as well as download.
Ohmni uses video and needs a good internet connection. Broadband speeds are normally quoted as the download speed but for video chat you need up as well as down, this is normally much less. For example, with ADSL you may be getting 10 Mbps download but only 0.8 Mbps upload. With cable it might be 42 Mbps down and only 3.1Mbps up [1]. My sister who lives in rural Wales gets around 3-6 Mbps download and 0.5-1.2 Mbps up with a line of sight link from Airband (partly dependent on the weather). Her mobile phone only works on the first floor of the house and her landline speed was abysmal.

Theoretically you can web chat with less than this. Skype recommends 0.3 Mbps (min 0.13) for video. For audio you need only 0.1 Mbps [2].

A video chat 30 minutes uses less energy than 250m in an electric car.
Video chat uses energy which generates carbon emissions, but much less than travel. For example, consider a 30 minute video chat using your home computer with a web cam. This might use at most 70W for the computer, and you might transfer 125 Mb data over the internet: total consumption 0.04 kWh [3]. The same amount of electricity would take you 0.24 km in an electric car [4]. Using a mobile phone the power consumption in the phone would be much less, but using the mobile network rather than WiFi takes more energy, say 0.08 kWh or 0.5 km in the car.

The government aims for everyone to have access to basic broadband.
So, today we have a variety of means of seeing our family without actually travelling – saving carbon emissions and also time and the risk of being stranded in bad weather. Actually this does not apply to everyone yet – though the government aims for everyone to have at least 2 Mbps and 95% of us to have 10 Mbps (no target date given) [5].



[1] UK Home broadband performance: A consumer summary of fixed-line broadband performance provided to residential consumers (OFCOM) November 2016

[2] Skype recommends
100 kbps (min 30 kbps) for audio
300 kbps (min 128) for video
For higher resolution you need more bits. 1.5 Mbps for HD.
2 Mbps (min 512) for group video with 3

[3] Internet costs 0.05kWh/GB from Mobile network energy in fridge units (this blog). 125 Mb is 0.05*0.125 = 0.006 kWh. Computer is 70W for half an hour so 0.035 kWh. Total 0.041 kWh. Mobile internet is 0.6 kWh/GB so 125 Mb is 0.075kWh
[4] Car goes 6 km for 1 kWh from Counting the benefits of electric cars (this blog). 0.041 kWh takes the car 0.24 km.
[4] Broadband Delivery UK (www.gov.uk) Nov 2017

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