Q&A with James Corbett, founder of the not-for-profit organization Vizitant.
- Tell us a little bit about Vizitant? Sure. Vizitant is a project which aims to bring virtual presence services to socially marginalized groups of people like the elderly, carers, disabled and so on. By virtual presence I mean video-calling and other means of conveying the illusion that one is in the company of others.
- How do you facilitate technology use by the elderly or disabled? We find the most user-friendly devices (e.g. Asus AiGuru SV1 and Eee Top) and configure them to be as simple to use as possible. That can be as basic as setting Skype to auto-answer and auto-start video. Or as complex as making hardware and software modifications.
- What would you like to see in video calling technologies that’s not yet available today? I think most of what we need is available today, but in the very high-end or corporate systems like Cisco Telepresence 3000. Which of course is totally beyond the budget of our target community. So what we need to see is the economies of scale in the marketplace that can push this quality of system, or something approaching it, into the consumer space. And of course that’s what Cisco is planning to do within the next couple of years. However, in the meantime, Skype and other low-end solutions are improving the level of experience dramatically for those with high quality webcams and dual core processors. Beyond that we need integrate more of the ‘virtual’ into the ‘presence’. While it’s great to feel like you’re in the same room as a remote relative imagine being able to feel like you’re both at a table together in a Parisian cafe. Or on a Caribbean beach. This is the kind of idea that might remind you of the ‘Holodeck’ on ‘Star Trek’ and that’s where, I believe, this technology can ultimately take us.
- Any plans to support multi-party sessions, sort of like a “town hall” meeting? Yes, we are in early discussions with an Irish company called OnlineMeetingRooms.com about using their multi-seat videoconferencing solutions for “town halls”.
- Do you envision applications of this technology for medical diagnosis and triage? Absolutely. There are trials ongoing at a hospital in Dublin, Ireland for a ‘robot doctor’, which is something like Skype Video on wheels, used in the early assessment and treatment of stroke victims. Read more about it here: http://www.vizitant.com/2008/07/remote-presence.html. And at the high-end there is HealthPresence – a specialized adaptation of Cisco’s high-end Telepresence system outfitted with medical diagnostic equipment and configured in a self-contained pod. More info can be found here.
- Prior to Vizitant, what sorts of projects or technologies did you work on? I spent a number of years with American multinationals in Ireland, such as Apple, Motorola and Analog Devices. There I worked in Software Test and System Administration roles. So I had varied exposure to a range of operating systems, network systems and so on. Experience which has taught me to look for the correct solution to a problem and not just “what we’ve always used here”.
- What’s it like running a business in Ireland? In general it’s very good. Ireland made No. 2 in Forbes recent list of Best Countries for Business and that’s fairly well borne out in reality. However we are somewhat lacking in terms of Venture Capital and Angel funding options.