Humans are unique because of our ability to use language to communicate complex ideas. Back-and-forth conversations can be helpful and enjoyable but surprisingly difficult to arrange. Until recently, even people who lived or worked in the same building could find themselves playing phone tag for days, as they each tried to guess when the other person might be available for a conversation. Email helped speed up the process, but in the early days, it required the recipient to sit down at a desk computer and connect to the internet through their phone line.
The solution was presence technology, which could tell you if someone on your contact list was available online in real time. Popularized by AOL Instant Messenger in 1997, it allowed for texting a full decade before smartphones became common, explains Smithsonian Magazine. Texting has changed remarkably little since those early days — nowadays, we just have better internet access and more websites and apps we can use for texting. It’s especially useful when people only have a little to say (perhaps a single question for customer service) or when they want to choose their words carefully.
In the quarter-century since AOL Instant Messenger was introduced, however, presence technology has gotten much smarter and is being used to improve other modes of communication.
Network Awareness in the Evolving Workplace
The COVID-19 pandemic supercharged how technology is transforming the workplace. Many employees found that they can be as productive at home as in the office, but they need effective ways to communicate with their coworkers. Many also missed the informal conversations that occur in hallways or at the water cooler, which can build camaraderie and lead to new ideas and solutions.
Many of these problems can be addressed by integrating presence technology into the suite of tools used by company employees. These tools can automatically determine whether someone has recently been active online (and, therefore, potentially available) and whether they are currently on a call or in a scheduled meeting. People can also indicate whether they are out for lunch, gone for the day, on vacation or otherwise don’t want to be disturbed. You can then decide to wait for that person to become available (and send a message or tell the system to notify you) or find someone who is available.
You don’t need to consider whether someone is working from their office, their home, their car or any other location that has internet access. Network location awareness allows a device to move between different networks and selects the proper configuration based on information about its available network connection.
Location information can be used to automatically adjust meeting times to the appropriate time zone for each participant. Many systems also allow users to have the same experience on different devices, so messages can go to your work phone, your personal phone, your laptop and your desktop computer. All of these tools working together leads to “unified communications and collaboration,” which is a popular buzz phrase and an important goal for companies with distributed workforces.
By working seamlessly in the background, these tools can help increase efficiency (so workers can finish their work more quickly) and productivity (so companies can improve their bottom line).
Better Video Chats
Presence technology has also greatly improved large-group video conferences, especially when some participants are onsite and others are remote. Here, the challenge is to make sure all participants feel like they are in the same room and able to hear and be heard by all other participants.
One major improvement comes from artificial intelligence (AI) powered cameras pointed at each participant that can automatically center the person in the video. That can be combined with technology that automatically mutes background noise, spotlights the person speaking and allows participants to easily share their computer screens. This keeps the focus on people and their ideas and makes managing the technology an afterthought.
Improved video conferencing is not just good for company meetings — it’s also a great way for grandparents who are not media savvy to connect with grandchildren who may not stay still for the camera. It’s also ideal for telemedicine, allowing patients to see their regular physician or a specialist even if they cannot travel to the clinic. A video visit isn’t appropriate for everything, but it can be ideal for simple tasks, like checking blood pressure, reviewing medications and discussing lab results and possible next steps. According to Harvard Business Review, the appropriate use of telemedicine can actually improve patient health and reduce costs.
Improved Convenience and Security
A more advanced level of presence technology is the use of facial recognition to unlock your phone. The goal is for the device to unlock almost instantaneously for you but stay locked for anyone else. Higher-end laptop computers are now available with a similar feature, as Windows Central notes.
Presence detection can be paired with sophisticated artificial intelligence to track people and their movements. The network location awareness that allows your device to be used on different networks can also allow some platforms to monitor all wireless devices emitting signals within a space. This is a reasonably good proxy for the people in that space.
Facial recognition software can be used to identify individuals as they move in and out of different areas. This technology could be paired with video AI to flag people who are moving in unexpected ways — perhaps more quickly or more slowly than expected or in an unusual direction or someone who seems to have fallen. An assisted living facility, for instance, could use it to keep track of vulnerable residents.
When combined with building security, facial recognition software can be used to determine how many people are in a space in case of an emergency or to identify suspicious individuals, but as with any technology, humans can use it for good or for ill. For example, an oppressive government could use this same technology to track down known dissidents.
Regardless of use case, it’s clear that presence technology has changed the way we connect with people online, and even today, it’s evolving with us as the world becomes more globalized and more digital.
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