Stefan Agamanolis on the Work of Distance Lab

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Last Saturday I had the pleasure of interviewing Stefan Agamanolis via Skype.

You can download it as a 96kbps MP3 here (27 meg, 38 minutes).

Additionally the full transcript is below. To distinguish between us I've indented Stefan.


Good afternoon, how are you?

I'm pretty well; how are you?

How am I? I don't know [laughs] you asked that in such a sincere way. I'm actually, relative to the rest of humanity, I'm actually doing pretty good.

[Laughs] That's good to know.

Everything is relative, right?

Sure, yeah

You're in Scotland, now. It's actually, where I'm originally from, so it's kind of strange to be calling back to my birthplace. Where are you from, originally?

I'm originally from Ohio, in the United States.

Okay, so we're sort of doing things backwards, [Laughter] here. It's kind of bizarre.

I'm in your homeland and you're somewhere far away; who knows where.

Who knows where, yeah, some distant land. How are you finding it, because you're way up north in Scotland, like where I would never go because it's so cold, damp, dour, and miserable. How are you finding that dark, cold place?

Actually, I'm living in the northern part of Scotland, as you know. I really think it's a very different place. It's almost like a different country compared to the so called, "central belt" of Scotland, which is mainly Glasgow and Edinburgh. The area that I'm living in is actually the sunniest part of Scotland because of some microclimate; the way the mountains and the sea work together, here. So, it doesn't necessarily feel dark to me. We even get half the rain here that they do in London, over the course of a year. I think, actually, the climate is quite good, in U.K. terms [Laughs], but yes, you're right; it does rain here. We get more weather, perhaps, than other parts of the world, sure.

You're heading up a lab called Distance Lab and you're a graduate of MIT's Media Lab. Is that correct?

That's correct, yes.

Why has the lab decided to form in northern Scotland, of all places?

There are a lot of reasons, I suppose, why we wanted to do it here. I should be clear, at first, to say that Distance Lab is not an MIT initiative. It's an independent thing. The main reason it exists at all is because there is a regional development agency that's based in the northern part of Scotland, here. It's called Highlands and Islands Enterprise. There is sort of a network of these types of regional development agencies in the U.K that get government funding to develop the economy in different parts of the U.K. The one up here, I think, is particularly progressive, compared to others. When I was working in Dublin, at Media Lab Europe, they actually sponsored Media Lab Europe in Dublin.

The Lab is "concentrating our efforts on a theme of distance". I'm sure we've got a fair amount of interest overlaps, since my passion, every day, is how people can communicate and collaborate at distance. Can you tell me more about the theme of distance?

Sure, distance just seemed to be a very nice word or term that pulled together a lot of the interests that were in this region at the time we were developing the plan.

There is a lot of interest, for example, in tele-health, in the region. You have a lot of - especially older people living in this region who are living in quite distant areas, who would benefit from that kind of thing. Distance learning has also been a very big theme in the region, for a long time, as well as other sorts of things like long-distance relationships. You have more of those here, particularly in families. A lot of the young people will leave home after they graduate from high school and go to colleges and universities in different parts of Scotland or the U.K. So, there is just a keen awareness of how distance affects peoples' lives up here.

It was a nice theme that brought together a lot of things. I guess; my own previous research also dealt with the theme of distance. I was running a group in Media Lab Europe called Human Connectedness, which was really about the future of human relationships, as mediated by technology, trying to deal with distance in new ways, to enhance those relationships, whether you're long distance from somebody or maybe in the same city and the same house and you need to be able to deal with a different kind of distance. Maybe it's an inter-personal distance or a temporal distance. It's a very flexible theme and I think it makes a nice theme to form a lab around, an easy thing to tell a story around that makes sense to people.

And the Lab has been working on something called Remote Impact. Could you describe Remote Impact?

Sure, just to give you a little context; Remote Impact is sort of in the theme of sports. We were very interested in sports because sports are a great way to introduce people to one another; they're a great way to break the ice between people. There are a lot of good effects of sports, like if you play a sport, such as a game of squash or something, with a new colleague, if you work up a sweat and get your adrenaline moving, that's a way to increase your propensity to bond with your teammates or your competitors. That's why sports are such an interesting phenomenon.

We wanted to be able to take advantage of the effects of sports but over a distance. One of the most difficult problems in communication is building a sense of trust over distance or building teams; just getting to know people for the first time is very difficult using a telephone or email. It's a little bit awkward that way.

We got very interested in sports as a way of doing that. We worked on a couple of different sports over a distance experiences. The latest one you just mentioned, called Remote Impact, is basically boxing over a distance. It's not exactly like boxing, obviously, but the point of it is that we want you to able to work up a sweat and feel like you're fighting with someone in a friendly way - you play a game.

The way it works when you stand in front of it, is it looks like a mattress standing up against the wall, like a bed-size mattress. There is a video projection on it that projects a silhouette of your competitor, who is somewhere else in the world. They could be anywhere in the world. It's connected over the Internet.

This mattress has some special sensors that we've developed inside of it; it knows how hard you're hitting it, where you're hitting it, and even knows if you're hitting it in multiple places at the same time. If you hit that persons' silhouette, you get points. If you miss, you don't get points. It's extremely fun. You can dodge the other person when you think they're going to hit you or you can sort of trick them with a kick or something. You can throw your entire body into it.

There is something to that "brute force" interaction, with an interface, that's really new, that we didn't have before. You've probably played games on the Nintendo Wii, where you have the controller and you wave it around, but you're never actually hitting anything with it. You're always waving it around in thin air. We thought it would be really fun to get full, physical contact with something, a brute force contact.

Have you ever thought about developing that into sex by distance, because I'm sure there is a lot of interest behind that.

That's not an area that we would be going into, in our research lab. I'm sure there would be a lot of keen interest in that from other organizations, especially given that we're government funded; we're not interested in doing that kind of work. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Okay, it just seems a linear progression to me, in that example. Also, I see you had a project; I think it's pronounced "See-moo-says".

It's a funny name, called SeamuSays. That's a project that's kind of like a soft toy. It has some electronics inside of it. The original purpose for developing it was to create something that would allow children to learn languages more easily, or in a different way. There would be ways that you could interact with this doll, by touching its hands together, for example, or touching its ears to its eyes. It would say something. It would replay a message that's been stored into it.

We realized that it was a fun way to leave voice messages to people. Someone could leave a message in there and then go away and someone else would get it later. It could be something fun for a parent to leave a message for their kid, which they could get out of the doll sometime later.

What we're working on right now is a version of that where you can actually leave a message for the doll, remotely. For example, Grandpa or Grandma, who lives in a different place, could call a number, theoretically, record a message, and then the grandchild, wherever they might be in the world, could get that message out by interacting with this doll, in a very simple way, rather than by pressing a button on the answering machine. It's just a product concept right now that we think would be nice to do sort of an inter-generational distance - breaking down intergenerational distance.

I do like the idea of being able to use your cell phone to "charge" your children's toys with your voice, to embed your voice in toys of your children, and being able to dynamically change that. I do like that one.

Can you tell me about @hand?

Sure, that's in the area of tele-health. For just a little background on that, we did a lot of work, background research in tele-health technologies, just to see what the state-of-the-art was. What we identified there was that there is a lot of tele-health that sort of directly used or at least affects the doctor/patient relationship, being able to speak to a doctor, for example, over your television or over your phone. There is a lot there, where you can take measurements, as well, and send them to your doctor and they go straight into your record.

What we realized was there wasn't very good support for this other persona, which is equally important in someone's overall healthcare, which is the informal caregiver - sort of caregivers that aren't paid but are typically a friend of the family, a relative like your son or daughter, who would take care of you as you're getting older.

For example, if you're an older who has a chronic condition, very often you'll be cared for by your son, daughter, or close friend, in part. There is very little support in a technology sense for those kinds of people. They're not very well recognized, if at all, by the traditional health system. They're just sort of considered to be these random people who are there but are not really taken seriously or not allowed access to any sort of data or records about the person.

We think that's actually quite wrong. These people are very important in someone's overall health equation. We're building technology to support them in caring for the people that they are caring for. @hand is a project that is kind of a touch-screen system that allows you to record measurements, for example weight or blood pressure, or other sorts of things so that a caregiver can see trends a bit more concretely than just noticing them in passing as they would have done before. They can track other things like calendar events. This can happen over a distance, so there are two screens, one in the caregiver's home, and one in the person's home who is being cared for. They actually participate together with the person they care for, in measuring their vital signs and health parameters.

Okay, am I allowed to suggest something to look at?

Sure, yeah

[Laughs] Okay

We take ideas from anyone, everyone.

It's just something that comes to mind. I find there's a lack of development in communications between people and things. For example, in Vienna, where I used to live, there is a skyscraper type of building that at night has patterns of light movement, which take place across its surface. The light is internally generated as opposed to projected. The pattern, I've watched it many times, seems to operate on a random basis. I felt kind of sad that I couldn't interact with that building. The building should have allowed polling/voting, should have allowed people to design their own light shows to take place on the building instead of being just a set algorithm that repeats nightly, every night, and seven days a week. I would have liked if I could have been connected to the building in order to vote and also see it on the Web or whatever, but I want to see more connectivity between buildings, and me for example.


Have you looked at that?

Well, we've done one project, actually. It was a collaboration with MIT, called Urban Pixels. MIT actually developed a sort of - it's like a pixel that's about ten centimeters in diameter. It's like a single light that you can attach anywhere on a building, façade, or something like that. You can put a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand of them up on a large façade or cityscape, and they will self-organize and you will be able to control them in a simple way so they'll display some kind of data pattern or whatever you want to put on them.

We worked with MIT on that, to sort of do an interactive building façade in Inverness, here, one time. It's quite fun to be able to affect things. I think people were quite interested and had fun having a big effect on a large façade just by sending a quick SMS on their phone. Yes, I agree with you; that's a really fun area to be working in. I think people like to have big effects on things, just by sending a quick SMS or something like that.

In just the urban space, we should be able to interact with it, more collectively, in real time. Urban spaces are often dead, command-and-control type managed. I would just like to see people being able to have an effect - connectivity to themselves and their urban environment and be able to immediately alter it. Light is one way of doing that.

I'll tell you another angle to this. Maybe you sort of feel like you'd like to be more connected to your urban environment, and I think that's certainly the way people feel. You may want to do that for fun reasons, to sort of feel like you're decorating the environment or leaving your piece of graffiti there, or whatever. But, another area we've looked into is a lot of people who live in cities would like to feel a little bit more connected to the country. When you're living in a big city, such as Tokyo or something, you don't really get a sense of the green space that's out there, where the animals are roaming that you're eating at night; where the various vegetables are growing that you're eating, as well. We're looking into ways to connect the city center to these areas in the country, in a way that you can sort of feel immersed in the places where your food comes from.

Lee: It reminds me that often, in my daily life, I notice that something is broken in what I would call the "civic social space". If you're out and about and you notice a bad hole in the road that is destroying car tires, you don't know whom to call and you can't be bothered because there is a lot of friction. You notice a light isn't working down some side alley, or a phone booth is smashed. The thing is; lots of people are seeing these things, they have mobile phones. There seems to be no immediate way of gathering that intelligence, which could be informing a local authority, "Hey, this telephone boot is smashed," or "there is a hole in the road, here". We're not capitalizing on the connectivity we have, today. Do you agree with that?

Stefan: Well, I think you're right, in a way. We're not capitalizing on that connectivity. I think there is also a sort of psychological hurdle there that has yet to be overcome. If somebody did notice a pot hole in the road or a broken traffic light, or something like that, very often I think some people might say, "Somebody else will take care of it," or "there will be a police car fairly soon that will see it and they'll take care of it," or something like that. I think that's kind of the wrong attitude. People have to start taking more responsibility for their own urban environments. The technology might exist to solve a lot of these problems, but the psychological hurdle is what really needs to be overcome there. Would you agree?

Well, I feel if that does exist, that attitude, which does exist, I feel it's not helped because you don't know which number to call. There is a high degree of friction between you, and you don't even know whom to communicate with. I just feel there is a lot of friction that could be smoothed out, so your device can instantly connect via some channel, free of charge, to communicate what is wrong. In effect, you're becoming a sensor for the local government.

It sounds like a great idea for a new service that local governments would probably buy into. If there was a simple phone number or simple button that you could program into your phone or your iPhone that allowed you to send a message straight to the transportation department, or whatever. I'm sure that would be ...

Something of this nature - I'm sure players will come in and begin to sew up that market, to make iPhone apps, which are generic, or fairly generic and be adapted to local governments around the world. I believe that local governments, through those methods, could significantly reduce costs, and also enhance quality of life service, etc., that people can give instant feedback on public services, civic spaces, etc.

You've convinced me, so you better edit out that part of the interview, because everyone's going to get the idea and steal it away from me. [Laughs]

Anyway, more onto you. You have this other project called Mutsugoto?

Yes, Mutsugoto

Can you tell me about that one? That seemed really interesting.

I think, in any project portfolio, of any research lab, you need to have a range of different kinds of projects - some that are near term products that may be commercially oriented, and other products that are a little bit more farfetched or far future, that are more about inspiring people, what's possible with technology, what's possible with communication.

Mutsugoto is really one of those projects. It's more there for the intellectual impact that it can have in the world. It's a communication environment that connects your bedroom to the bedroom of your partner, who is in a different location.

[Laughs] I will not repeat my previous question, at this point. [Laughs]

It could be - we've often talked about it as connecting the bedrooms to long-distance partners, people who are in long-distance relationships. It could also be used between two kids. It's nothing really sexual at all. It's not in that domain.

What we're trying to do is to create something that is a little bit different from the mobile telephone. We typically use the mobile phone for everything; you talk to your lawyer, to the pizza man, and you talk to your significant other on there. It doesn't make sense why we should use the same exact form of communication for every type of relationship that we might have. In the same way that it doesn't make sense that we would use the same exact chair for all of the purposes that you would want to sit down for, you have a different kind of chair for deskwork, one for watching TV, or one for eating something.

What we're proposing here is we need a little bit more variation in the types of communication technologies that are out there, that are for different purposes. So, Mutsugoto is one that was meant to connect bedrooms and beds. It's kind of like a collaborative drawing system, where you wear a special ring. You move your hand around your bed, or you can lie on it and move your hand around your own skin. The computer will project lines onto you, where you are drawing, at the same time that those lines are transmitted and drawn on the other person's bed, somewhere else in the world. It can also respond. It can sort of draw at the same time as you, so it's kind of a collaborative drawing system.

If you move your drawing in the same way as your partner, at the same time and in the same way, the color changes. The lines that are drawn turn red, as opposed to white. That's a sign for you that you are in synchrony, at that point, that you are making the same movements as your partner, in another location.

We were really looking for something that would allow a different kind of communication, not the business-like communication that telephone is very good at doing. We wanted something where you have gesture sort of reflected more visually and you could use that to express intimacy in a different way, or to sort of make fun pictures, play tic-tac-toe, or do other sorts of things.

Okay, that's very interesting. I really agree that it is strange that we're using one device, in particular one mode of communications, often telephony, for everything that we do - for our personal lives, for business contacts; there is little differentiation in the tool. The example you gave reminded me; I don't know if you're aware of it, but the plastic USB plant you can get, which springs to life when your significant other comes online?

If you're referring to - there have been a number of flower and plant related sorts of displays. We worked on one in my earlier group in Media Lab Europe. Yes, there are different ways of expressing someone's presence than just having the Skype icon light up on your screen. That's certainly the information you need but you might want to have something that's a little bit more reflective of that relationship and the importance of that person in your life. It may be something you want to carry around with you as you go around without your computer, or maybe something that's a physical plant that's sitting on your desktop. Those are just variations on the theme of the Skype icon that lights up, that are more physical, and perhaps, more meaningful to people, to represent their partners.

One of my biggest disappointments with the communications industry has been the lack of development of presence. It's still where it was ten or fifteen years ago, with online/offline or busy. It's very disappointing. Why can't we wear a ring, for example, and when we think of our significant other, we squeeze the ring and it moves a kinesthetic feeling to their hand, so they instantly know you're thinking about them?

When we communicate, every time we communicate, it's with an intention to convey something. Instead of having to call and speak for twenty minutes and trying to use tones to say, "I like you," a two-second squeeze of a ring on your hand that acts on a ring on their hand may achieve the same thing. Don't you feel that presence just has not been tapped? That's just a phenomenal market.

Absolutely, I totally agree. I think there have been a lot of concepts and prototypes developed, and different kinds of things like that, for example, hug jackets. You can hug yourself and the jacket in the other location will sort of tighten up and your partner will feel a hug there. There have been a lot of concepts like that developed, but very few of them have been commercialized as of yet. I think some of them are in the pipeline, but others of them are probably stalled because of technological issues.

For example, connectivity - how is it going to connect? Is it going to be Wi-Fi or Bluetooth? Are you going to have to charge it? Is it a piece of clothing? Is it going to be washable, with a module that comes out easily? What's the charging system? Is it going to be charged as an SMS message or some other sort of charging paradigm? There are a few things that I think haven't been worked out. As concepts, they look really interesting and people kind of express interest in them, but then when you get into the nitty gritty, there a few more things to work out than perhaps were expected. I think we're going to be seeing more and more of these types of things in the next few years, definitely.

So, there is plenty of untapped money out there. I won't even say in my opinion, because it's absolute fact; humans have a need to communicate, to convey signals, etc. to each other. Anything that improves the efficiency, the effectiveness, is worth money. Often, actually paying for communications conveys a lot of the signals you want to send anyway, the fact that you're being charged for an SMS.

Sure, the fact that you're actually spending money to send these types of signals to your girlfriend, boyfriend, or whoever it is, indicates to them that they're worth money, that they're worth that expenditure.

Yeah, so free is not always better. If I can mention SMS for a second, short messaging added another mode of functionality into the communications landscape. What was critical about that, was it was packaged and distributed extremely well so it was in every GSM handset, and every GSM network. You didn't require software to download. It was enabled out of the box, hardwired to the device. Now, the SMS market, and don't forget; SMS is something exceptionally simple, is a hundred billion or so dollars a year, which is bigger than movies, and music and the game industry all put together. I strongly suspect that operators could get lucky again by hardwiring, yet again, at the point of manufacture, another modality into devices.

I totally agree with you on that. I think it's very interesting to study the history of SMS, how it became popular, and how it was almost designed into the GSM standard, as an afterthought. It was a new way to communicate that didn't exist before. I'm positive that there will be additional venues for communication that are discovered like that, ways that we would like to communicate or times, places that we would like to communicate that we're not right now. Someone is going to discover those and I'm sure will take full advantage of them.

[Laughs] I suspect there's another hundred billion dollar a year market just waiting to be tapped. I like the experimentation you described there. It helps uncover these things. A problem I see is the Internet is given the perception that so-called "free" to the consumer is best, but actually, in the realms of communications, as we've previously mentioned, free is often far from best, for many reasons, which I won't go into. In full intimate communication's case, the receiver, just knowing the sender is paying, conveys appropriate social gestures and signals.

I'll give you an example. My teenage daughter has access to free communications. The people she hangs about with have all got broadband at home. Even when she's at home, she'll often choose to force boys she does not know, via her cell phone. It's a way for her, I think, to determine their sincerity. I notice she'll force them through the cell phone for six or so weeks. Then, if they become in her hub circle, they end up getting added to her Skype buddy list and they're permitted to have free communication. She forces them through the operator tollbooth. I think money or at least an abstraction of it is fantastic for filtering or conveying importance or urgency interest.

I see your point there, with the money flow, but actually, I don't think that is the preferred way of demonstrating someone's importance to you. At least, maybe that's not the way I would have chosen. I think that in today's day and age, time turns out to be much more important than money, in terms of expressing the importance of something.

I can tell you that from my life, right now, my time is much more valuable than the amount of money I'm spending on call or something like that. Perhaps I'm lucky to be in that position or perhaps not. I certainly don't feel, necessarily, lucky all the time.

For me, if I received a physical letter from someone, something that someone sat down and wrote out, spent the time to physically address, maybe drew a little picture on it, put a stamp on it, took it to the mailbox to send, and that kind of thing, that investment of time, to me, is much more impressive or demonstrates my importance to them in a different way than perhaps the fact they spent on a phone call for me. It's different for different people. Different people respond to different kinds of investment and different kinds of things.

I quite agree with you. That's why we need more sociologists looking at the communications space.

I will insert, for a plug, our little previous conversation about what's the next thing that's going to make zillions of dollars, just like SMS did; we're actually working on that theme now, in Distance Lab. We have a few ideas that could be big game changers, which I'm not going to talk about in the interview. If your listeners are interested, they can contact me and I'll tell them more. [Laughs]

Okay, that's great. I don't want to go off topic. I have a habit of doing that, especially on the weekend. We have a depressed economy and a lot of companies I've been speaking to, recently, and in the communications space are actually accelerating because they're helping drive efficiency, which is critical. They're helping save money. Not only that, but I feel there are massive, untapped markets in communications. Communications, today, is so broken. Even just fixing it is going to make a lot of money, but adding in other modalities to be more sensuous, to give a better sense of presence of others, is again, more money. I just feel there is so much opportunity out there and the communications space has been stagnant for so long.

I should probably ask what is exciting you about your work at Distance Lab? Where do you see opportunities? That's a final question since we've been on the call for quite a while.

Well, just to respond to your statement, I totally agree with you, again, that we're seeing a lot of very interesting development. There is still a lot of opportunity in the area of communication technology. I think the fact of the matter is that the economy might be depressed, but people still want to communicate as much as ever. That's a simple, human fact, and that's not going to be changing any time soon.

It might be that your company doesn't want to upgrade their phone system until a couple of years later, so maybe a telecom company isn't going to make as much money for a little while, but in terms of communication traffic, I don't think there is going to be any slowdown in that. In fact, we'll probably see an increase, certainly, because companies are going to be thinking about ways to be more efficient, ways to use video conferencing or tele-presence technologies. If anything, I think the communication industry could be set for further boom.

I think in Distance Lab, we're very interested in figuring out how people are going to communicate in the future. We have certain things we use quite globally now, like email, mobile phones, instant messaging is now quite a big thing, and video conferencing on the desktop. All of these are very generic in a way. As I said before, we often use the same email system or the same mobile phone to be talking to our lovers and our parents as we do to talk to our lawyers and our pizza man. It doesn't make sense why that should necessarily be. We don't really have as much of a range in communication technologies as we do in furniture, food, and that kind of thing.

At Distance Lab, we're very interested in this theme of what I'm calling "slow communication," which is kind of picking up on themes from the slow food movement, which your listeners might know about. Slow food is really a reaction to fast food, in that fast food is served to you in a very robotic way and it's not necessarily healthy. You can be distracted by any number of things while you're eating it. Slow food is about more quality, controlling the environment so you have a very good experience from beginning to end. It's about the relationships with the people that you're dining with, the quality of the food and not being distracted.

We're just extending those ideas into the design of communication technologies. Can we create something that's different from the mobile phone? The mobile phone is kind of like fast food. What's the slow food of communication? We're controlling the entire environment. We're reducing distractions. We're enhancing your relationship. We're tailoring it to the specific type of relationship that you have or the specific kind of thing you want to get done in the communication.

That's where we think the most interesting action is going to be. We know how to send bits around the Internet. We know how to send audio and video around the Internet, pretty well nowadays. If you increase your broadband width, you can send even more bits, more video, and more audio. That just really leaves the problem in design. How are we going to design new communication technologies to take advantage of all these new and different ways that people like to? I'll leave it at that.

Okay, we haven't yet seen the long tail of communications. In my mind, we're just coming out of what I would call the "Henry Ford" stage of communications; where you can have any color you want as long as it's black. That's why I'm extremely interested in the work of the Distance Lab.

On that, I would like to thank you for your time. I appreciate our "call" was free, but the fact that you are giving me your time is a great social signal that meant something. Communications establishes and nourishes relationships and the signaling on this one, by you giving me your time, has initiated one. I hope to be seeing you soon, at the March 2009 Emerging Communications Conference.

Yes, I look forward to it. Thanks very much for having me.

Thank you very much.

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