The Human Uber Provides Mobile Video Calling and It’s a Technological Step Back

human uber video mobile calling

You’re going to think this is a joke. It’s not.

There are people in this world willing to strap an iPad to their face and act as someone else’s virtual body, while that person lives life from afar.

Some people are calling it the “human Uber,” and it’s an unforeseen twist in the evolution of video conferencing. The technology in question is the brainchild of the University of Tokyo’s Rekimoto Lab, which specializes in augmented human communication. What its students and researchers have come up with is a new form of wearable tech–they call it the Chameleon Mask–that is worn by a human surrogate to carry the interactive face of another person to places they can’t, or won’t, visit.

There’s no new technology involved–if you’ve ever made a video call by iPad you’re as advanced as these researchers–and there’s no precision to its design. Basically, this is the video conferencing version of talking through two tin cans connected by a piece of string. Virtual, mobile video conferencing can do a lot better than the “human Uber,” especially with the spread of Internet of Things technologies.

Video Conferencing Robots

The Chameleon Mask is a direct rip-off of the wheeled telepresence robots that have been with us for a few years now. These robots are being used in offices, universities, and hospitals to give remote employees or students a physical presence to accompany their telecommuting presence. The robots look like an iPad strapped to the top of a Segway and act just like a mobile video conference. There’s a screen with a camera mounted on top to act as the eyes, ears, and face of the telecommuter, and occasionally grasping arms to let them physically interact.

They’re designed to make the absent feel and seem more involved in their workplace. The robots give them the ability to walk the halls and have random chats with their colleagues, and to move from conversation to conversation without having to make multiple video calls.

They’re also expensive, a little intimidating in their appearance, and restricted in their movement. The “human Uber” is supposed to solve those problems, but, ironically, having your face carried around by an unseen human seems even more alienating than having it rest atop a robot.

Besides, what friend or colleague wouldn’t be curious about the person hiding beneath your video calling image?

The “Human Uber” Provides Video Calling Mobility

If there’s a case to be made for the “human Uber,” it’s that it can go places a telepresence robot cannot. Robots aren’t good with stairs, they aren’t good at hailing cabs to move between destinations, and they aren’t good at squeezing the fruit at a grocery store to make sure it’s ripe.

So, if you have temporary or long-term mobility issues, and an alarmingly high number of those in this country do, then maybe the idea of renting someone else’s body for the day to run your errands, drop in on an old friend–one who doesn’t have a smartphone or computer you could use for a video call–attend a class, or excuse yourself from a party “in person,” could be a good one.

Of course, the whole venture seems a little demeaning to the person behind the screen. We also see the concept devolving into more of a delivery service, with the “Uber” simply handing the screen to your intended interlocutor and politely waiting outside–would you discuss anything confidential in front of a stranger with an iPad on their face?

The truth is that few people with a smartphone and a Skype account have a use for this concept when they can make a face-to-face video call for free. It’s also doubtful the “human Uber” would be allowed to attend business meetings or wander the halls of an office, so there’s a limited professional market. And, finally, the Chameleon Mask is downright ugly–and clunky.

If you’re looking for the future of video conferencing by proxy, there are far better solutions on the way.

Internet of Things Video Calling

The Internet of Things (IoT, for short) is about connecting the everyday objects that surround us to the internet. With that connection comes the possibility of adding a screen and enabling video calls. We’ve already seen the most prominent IoT devices, smart speakers and home hubs, evolve from audio-only to video, most notably with the Amazon Echo Show.

There are plenty of other smart IoT devices on the market as well. Doorbells, fridges, cars, office equipment, and public signage are all getting smarter. It’s likely that soon we’ll be able to slip from video screen to video screen throughout our daily lives, like vines in a cartoon jungle. Put simply, our smart devices will do the traveling for us.

We’re already more virtually mobile than you might realize. Every smartphone is a webcam, most offices have a video conference room, more and more universities stream lectures online, and every sector of the market has an online presence, from department stores to banks to restaurants and theaters.

Once IoT fills in a few blanks, we’ll be able to move from the office to an online group video chat to a live show without ever actually setting our feet on the ground. The idea that we’ll need a human to physically carry our video conferencing equipment around for us is already archaic. Once IoT takes hold, the “human Uber” is going to look like a joke…which it might well turn out to be.

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