Connecting cities and connecting people

Recently, an ambitious idea called pOrtal ‘connected’ Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius and the city of Lublin in Poland.

What was the connection? This!

This is not a new idea, though. There have been many earlier attempts at ‘connecting’ 2 different cities like this.

In 2016, there was the Luneta Project that was conceived as a ‘window’ between 2 cities – Berlin and the Polish city of Wroclaw. (What’s with Poland and such ideas?)

One of the more famous examples was an advertising campaign by Coca-Cola where a portal connected India and Pakistan! The campaign, called ‘Small World Machines’, conceived by Leo Burnett Chicago and Leo Burnett Sydney, used an interactive screen in India and another in Pakistan where people on both sides had to perform an action on the screen together to win free Coca-Cola!

All these examples are intended to connect cities with each other. The hallmark of these projects is that they are installed at a public place, and probably for a limited amount of time, as a public attraction (or a parlor trick) that has little practical application. The concept gets wide coverage in the media and is spoken about… and then the installation is gone.

Now, while these ideas were being executed, our network and smartphone technology has also progressed dramatically. But, at a smartphone and 4G/5G level, the idea is personal and individual – that is, it connects 2 people with each other, and not 2 cities.

The city-level connection uses larger screens, more immersive background (as a result) and seems larger-than-life… almost as if you could step into another city in an instant (but, of course, you cannot).

The smartphone-level video call is considerably smaller, restricted by the phone’s screen size, but given the pandemic, has become more prevalent, with technologies like Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams enabling it through laptops, tablets, and the computer screen.

More recently, Google announced Project Starline that almost tries to bring both together – a much larger and immersive screen for personal video calling!

Now, consider this: Before smartphones made telephony mobile and ‘anywhere’, we had physical phone booths where you went to and made voice calls. That is, when the devices were not widely available, we had a business model around booths that enabled widespread usage.

So, if a larger, immersive experience for video calling is not yet possible, would it be available to the general public as a ‘booth’ experience?

For instance, Cisco launched the TelePresence system in 2006 where 2 different rooms (in 2 different places/cities/countries) are connected through large-screen TV devices. I have had several calls via such technologies in some of the companies I have worked in – Edelman, Flipkart and Ogilvy. I have had conversations, group discussions (with multiple people in multiple cities), agency pitches and even full-fledged presentations through these technologies. It does feel like being there and the considerably better (than a laptop-screen size) visibility of body language and non-verbal feedback is a big difference to me as a presenter. But such a system was rarely available outside of commercial establishments and offices.

Now, with smart TVs, there are apps (like Google Duo app for smart/connected TVs), but you need to get a separate webcam, mount it on the TV and need to use the cumbersome remote of the TV that was primarily meant for channel switching and not full-fledged text/numeric input.

Yes, there are products like Fire TV Cube or Facebook Portal that allow you to add the video calling feature to your TV. But, these are still early days.

Even beyond that, TV is still a small’ish screen, if you consider the conventional sizes of TVs at most homes – 40-65 inches, I gather. They are not the true immersive experience, which would be, in your home, using a wall and converting that into a screen of sorts where you see the other person almost as if they are right there with you.

That sort of experience could be made available via commercial booths that you could book and use to make immersive calls. But is there a use-case, really? We are already used to video calls on phone and perhaps more widespread video calls via TV may happen on a larger scale.

But a business could still be made through the larger screen technology. Imagine hospitals converting one wall inside a patient’s room into a giant screen where the patient could call up a loved one and talk to them as if they are right there in that room! I assume that’s probably the kind of use-case Google Starline may see, besides the office conference calls (that Cisco too does rather well already).

I reckon that these advances are ultimately geared towards more futuristic (by current standards; even sci-fi’ish) innovations that we may eventually end up seeing: 3D holographic projections of the people we are calling… and the holy grail that transcends mere communication and enters the mobility territory: teleportation! 🙂

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