TeleAbsence: Communicating Across Time


MIT Media Lab

MIT Media Lab

By Ken Shulman | Arts at MIT

TeleAbsence by the Tangible Media research group

Since the invention of the telegraph, humans have been able to communicate across great distances in real time. Today, we can choose among myriad technologies—radio, telephone, video conference platforms—to connect with colleagues and loved ones in different time zones, countries, and continents. These technologies create a telepresence—a sense of nearness between living beings separated only by space.

“The purpose of telepresence is to connect people who are alive,” says Hiroshi Ishii, the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, where he directs the Tangible Media research group. “But what about communicating with people who are no longer with us? That is the aim of TeleAbsence, our speculative design project. We attempt to bridge the vast emotional distance caused by bereavement. To create the illusion that we are communicating and interacting with a loved one who has departed. And to discover whether this illusory communication can help soothe our grief.”

Launched in the late 1990s, the Tangible Media research group works to give the virtual world a physical form. The group has invented tangible interface technologies, developed urban planning and simulation tools, and designed dozens of user interface devices that facilitate a merger of real and virtual environments.

The TeleAbsence project, supported in part by the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), is one of the group’s most ambitious efforts. In addition to blending the real and virtual worlds, it also probes—and imitates—the way humans process feelings of belonging, love, and loss. Originally inspired by bereavement, the project has evolved and now addresses other forms of loss and emotional distance.

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