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The History of The Transparent Telepresence Group

A Personal Account By Gordon Mair

This history is a testimony to teamwork. Telepresence system design demands interdisciplinary expertise not found in any one person, unless you know of a modern day Leonardo da Vinci. The group emerged due to teamwork and it is teamwork that maintains it and will allow it to grow. Having said that, there now follows a rather egotistic history!

cities_in_flight.jpg (24893 bytes)I first came across the concept of telepresence in a 1952 short story by James Blish. The story was titled "Bridge", later incorporated into the "Cities in Flight" series of novels, and although Blish did not use the words themselves the concepts of telepresence, telerobotics, and augmented reality were clearly illustrated. The story describes how an engineer attempts to build an ice bridge on Jupiter by teleoperating a vehicle from one of Jupiter's moons. Reading this as a teenager in the Sixties the idea of being able to experience the thrill of being somewhere as potentially exciting but inhospitable as the atmosphere of Jupiter left a lasting impression. And now approximately half a century later we at last have the potential to turn fiction into fact.

In 1990 I had already been teaching and writing on the topic of industrial robotics and automation for about ten years. I was considering how I could develop this interest into other areas, such as telepresence, when I was approached by the Turing Institute to design and build a "robot head" for their active vision work, it would also be used as an announcer for the Robot Olympics being held in Strathclyde University that year. I designed the mechanical structure and had it build in my own department's, i.e. Design, Manufacture, and Engineering Management (DMEM) workshops. The head was then transferred to the Institute where a final year Computer Science graduate designed the software and electronics for its control. This head was named Richard the First and had a brief period of fame during the Robot Olympics. Although the head could have been useful for telepresence the opportunity did not arise at this point for further development, but it did form the first steps along the road to today's telepresence group.

A number of parallel events started the telepresence work in earnest. In 1993 I had been supervising an enthusiastic MSc student named John Heng who was interested in working for his PhD in the area of robotics and he was willing to fund himself. I was keen for him to build a head for telepresence. Peter Mowforth and Paul Siebert at Turing were doing further work on active vision which could make use of another robot head. This work was in collaboration with the Department of Computer Science whose investigator was Richard Fryer. He had funding available for cameras and some components for an Anthropomorphic Sensor Platform. Thus the building of this head started with John funding himself, located in the Turing Institute, using the DMEM workshops for the head fabrication, and under the supervision of myself with support from Computer Science and the Turing. Due to problems at the Turing unrelated to the project John eventually had to transfer his working location to DMEM. It was now that the telepresence aspects of the work began to develop. At an exhibition where the head was shown it was seen by Peter Cochrane of British Telecom. This started a fruitful collaboration between the University and BT. Working together with firstly Giles Chamberlin and then Dennis Sheat at BT Laboratories at Martlesham Heath a working telepresence system was produced using BT's ISDN2 system. The first operational experiment was carried out on the 15th of September 1995. This system was subsequently widely reported and demonstrated in the media. We have carried out many live demonstrations of this system, e.g. University for Industry Conference in London, the launch of the BT Global Challenge round the world yacht race in Southampton, Reporting Scotland (TV), Robotics '96, How 2 (TV), IEE Scottish Christmas Lectures (1996), Tomorrow's World Live Show (1997), Tomorrow's World (TV) 1997.

During 1994 Jennifer Clark joined the group on a three year EPSRC industrial studentship partially funded by BT, this work was jointly supervised by myself in DMEM and Richard Fryer in Computer Science. In 1995 Kenny Revie joined the group on a one year studentship sponsored by BT and supervised by myself. Also during 1995 we began to take over our own laboratory and in November John Heng completed his PhD based on his sensor platform design. By 1996 the work was expanding with undergraduate and postgraduate students becoming involved and contacts made with other departments within the University. John Heng had to reluctantly return home to Singapore, however this was offset by the good news that we had been granted an EPSRC contract for two years beginning December 1996. This was for a joint project between DMEM, Civil Engineering and Computer Science to investigate the potential for immersive hybrid VR and Telepresence using mobile cellphone technology for major engineering project simulation and monitoring. The investigators on this project were myself (principal investigator), Dr. Arkady Retik (Civil Engineering), and Prof. Douglas McGregor and Dr Richard Fryer (Computer Science), also Kenny Revie and Jennifer Clark were appointed as Research Associates. Industrial collaborators on the project were Orange Personal Communications, Alvis Logistics, and Babtie Engineering.

Other members have also joined the team over the past three years. Tamer Khalil joined in October 1996 as a PhD student and he is working on a master-slave telemanipulation system. A former MSc student, Colin Harrison, started on his PhD in October 1997 and he is investigating binaural sound and associated audio/hearing phenomena relating to the provision of a sense of aural presence. During 1997 another PhD student, Roger Hardiman from Computer Science, joined the group to work on the image compression and stereo co-encoding necessary for telepresence over low bandwidth communication links. Also during the early part of 1997 the Department of DMEM refurbished the telepresence laboratory to provide well defined comfortable desk and meeting space and ample benchworking areas .

The aforementioned EPSRC project has now been successfully completed and we have demonstrated the control of a robot head mounted on a mobile vehicle and the feedback of video to a remote user all over a mobile phone system. Control of the robot head over the mobile phone was first demonstrated publicly at an EPSRC MNA Programme workshop in November 1997 and the complete vehicle and head system when we were invited back to the Tomorrow's World Live Show in February 1998. In November 1998 we carried out the world's first transatlantic combined video and teleoperation demonstration over a mobile phone. This was done when I was attending an SPIE Conference in Boston and, using a small Toshiba Libretto sub-notepad PC and mobile phone, controlled the pan, tilt, zoom, and iris control of a camera platform here in our lab in Glasgow, while receiving back the live video which was displayed on the hand-held PC. In December 1998 we provided an improved long distance demonstration by adding control of our Alvis mobile bomb disposal vehicle, this was done between DERA in Chertsey and our lab in Glasgow.

We are constantly seeking new partners and collaborators and are obviously keen to pursue funding opportunities wherever they appear. The ideas we have for future research, development, and application of this technology and its relationship to the individual and society are boundless.

Gordon Mair, Transparent Telepresence Research Group Director, January 1999

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