Video conference calls are pretty great. They let you communicate remotely, and even let you attend business meetings even when in your pajamas. But they miss a certain something — while you can listen and respond to what other people are saying, they don’t really give you the feeling of being physically present in the room. A new technology from Japan is looking to change all that — but through a somewhat bizarre solution.
Chameleon Mask is a new project developed by Japanese researchers that lets you deploy a human stand-in for situations where you aren’t able to be physically present where you’d like to be. Your human stand-in — somewhat like a human Uber — wears a tablet that livestreams your face to your audience, and goes where you direct him to go. Your voice is relayed through a microphone, and you can see what your human stand-in sees through a camera.
It seems very much like getting a person to wear an tablet that’s livestreaming your video call, but Chameleon’s Mask’s tech is a lot more sophisticated than that. The stand-in wearing the “tablet” has a VR screen through which they can see directions that the livestreamer make — they can, for instance, raise their arm to the left, and the stand-in will see their arm on their VR glasses, and mimic their actions. And even though their face is covered by a huge tablet, the stand-in can still see where they are going through a tiny camera on the side.
And the researchers think that there are more applications to the technology than simply attending meetings. They say that it can allow users to become a person they admire — in the promotional video, they show how a cosplay character could roam the streets of Tokyo, and someone else could feel what it’s like to walk in their shoes. The device could also help people travel — you simply stay in your bedroom and travel the world, while your stand-in does the legwork.
There’s, of course, the question of whether people want to interact with the stand-in when they have a giant tablet stuck to their face, but the researchers say that initial tests have been encouraging. They’ve got stand-ins to carry out successful transactions in shops on their behalf, and even got someone to remotely visit their grandmother. There’s also the somewhat thorny question of how the stand-in would be paid — there are currently no benchmarks to how much it pays to be a human surrogate. And if the surrogate performs an action that’s, say, illegal, who’s really responsible?
The idea might seem fanciful, but it isn’t as outlandish as it might seem. Video and audio technology effectively lets human beings be wherever they want to be, but as Boston Dynamics’ stumbling robots show, we’re a long way from seamlessly moving from one place to another. Chameleon Mask might end up being a reasonable solution while mobility solutions catch up. And if it seems creepy to let a human stand in for you, until very recently, it would’ve been unthinkable to enter a stranger’s car and travel with them. If Uber could take off, Uber for humans could have a chance too.