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Making Sense of Presence in Communication


Douglas Galbi
in his comment links to his fascinating paper Sense in Communications: Note Douglas is an economist with the FCC and his paper an in-depth study 190 pages on "Presence". He states that: "To avoid disaster, the telecommunications industry needs to shift from providing telephony to providing means for making sense of presence." I wholeheartedly agree!

Summarizing elements from his paper is both quite a challenge and really doesn't do justice to the depth of thinking, historical perspective and gorgeous photos provided. So this blogspeed entry tries to make some small sense of presence. My favorite pages 6, 7, 126, 127, 128, 130, 133, 136, 137, 141, 142. Direct quotes are in italics.

Key Insights:
"Presence" is fundamental to creating future communications value. We are a a critical point where the interaction of photography (pictures) and telephony (calls) will radically reduce the cost of making sense of presence and create new opportunities for value creation

  • What makes a letter a joy, or a voice from an object (a telephone headset) a comfort, rather than a horror, depends on the sense of another's presence, despite that person's physical absence. The way this sense is activated, and at what cost, directly relates to sensuous choices in communication.

  • Three models of communications illustrate why: 1)information transfer (under different sensory circumstances eg face to face to new forms of social software), 2)storytelling (shared interpretation and different sensory economics), and 3)sense of presence (an element of real-time presence detection and participation). Of these only "Presence" provides the sensory opportunity to radically redirect strategies for mobility and social networking.
  • Since most demand for information is for textual information, information transfer offers relatively little scope for comparative advantage in sensuousness. In storytelling, high-production cost, streaming audio-visual stories dominate other feasible sensuous forms. At the other end of the technological spectrum, the extraordinary advantages of paper and ink as a storytelling medium - low-cost, highly portable, widely accessible, and durable - make it difficult for a sensory alternatives to create a competitive advantage.3
  • Providing means for persons to make sense of presence in the absence of physical proximity is a business in which sensory innovation has enduring opportunities to create value. Making sense of presence in social interaction among friends and family has long driven demand for telephony and photography.
  • Making sense of presence also drives demand for use of e-mail, instant messaging, mobile short messaging services (SMS), and camera phones. Making sense of presence is a good not constrained by conventional distinctions between content and communication.
    (my bold)
  • Communication services have enormous opportunities for innovation, differentiation, and
    commercial competition in organizing sensory modes to support production of this highly valued good. Not understanding this good could be disastrous for major, well-established organizations.

  • Linking Photography and Telephony is natural and complementary. Thus camera phones get their comparative advantages by developing an enhanced sense of presence rather than information transfer or storytelling. Note: Mobile camera phones are rapidly becoming the most prevalent photographic devices.
    Communicating using photographs and communicating by telephone calls are related in a fundamental sense: the sense of presence. The predominate uses of both photography and telephony involve actively recognizing another despite that person's physical absence. A photograph and a telephone conversation each provide only one mode of external sense of another person. Nonetheless, using a photograph or using a telephone call, bodily work can create a sense of presence. The complementarity of photographs and telephone calls suggests that persons complement voice-only experiences of presence with image-only experiences of presence.

    Providing a sense of presence at low cost is inconsistent with text messaging, which has a higher cost of making sense of presence than voice and images! This certainly gels with my early intuitive feel that "voice-centric" IM will kill "text-centric" IM systems. Thus Skype is winning on voice, and Flickr for the moment wins on text / photo-sharing. Neither of these manage effectively to handle audiovisual messaging. Similarly, the learning is that Orkut and similar social networking services that fail to provide a sense of presence will be of limited long-term value unless they somehow plug-in to or provide additional value by combining with a "presence provider".

    The emerging "broadband industry" will obsolete the telephone company and has probably already killed Kodak who remains focused on digital photography and albums. Similarly, contextualizing voice and presence provides new opportunities for security companies, reputation management etc. The implications for emerging companies like Skype is to keep the trade-offs of photo vs video in mind when developing additional funcitonality and assessing bandwidth implications. Thus Skype voice to WiFi PDA's is more important than adding real-time video. Concurrently adding pictures that can be shared during conference calls and providing interesting aspects for presence could add significant value quickly with little impact on quality. A simple example is pictures change when status changes. These elements are far more important to conferencing and mobility than live video streaming which can already be achieve by using Skype and Yahoo concurrently. Skype's real opportunity is when the application becomes completely mobile. Concurrently the mobile handset and PDA makers better get their skates on. It is just becoming obvious how much can be made here. In a crude sense every dollar currently made on telephony in the future will be made in the service of presence.

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    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Making Sense of Presence in Communication:

    » Sense of Presence in Communications from Conversations with Dina
    Another brilliant piece in my aggregator today - a long and fascinating paper by Douglas Galbi on Sense in Communications . [Read More]

    » Presence from Ming the Mechanic
    Stuart Henshall summarizes a paper, Sense in Communications", by Douglas Galbi, who is an economist with the FCC. The paper is an in-depth 190 page study on "Presence". He states in part that: "To avoid disaster, the telecommunications industry needs t... [Read More]

    » Paper on presence and communication from Emerging Communications
    Sense in Communication by Douglas A. Galbi looks promising. He regards presence as a model of communication alongside information transfer and storytelling, and concludes that the best way to approach the subject of sense in communication is with the p... [Read More]

    Comments (3)

    Great summary, with a lot of additional insights!

    * * The implications for emerging companies like Skype is to keep the trade-offs of photo vs video in mind when developing additional functionality and assessing bandwidth implications. Thus Skype voice to WiFi PDA's is more important than adding real-time video. Concurrently adding pictures that can be shared during conference calls and providing interesting aspects for presence could add significant value quickly with little impact on quality. A simple example is pictures change when status changes. These elements are far more important to conferencing and mobility than live video streaming... (from blog entry above) * *

    Good point. Integrating image sharing conveniently and flexibly in the activity of communication probably has much more value than providing video capability. Many persons still associate "camera phones" or "videoconferencing" with images of talking heads. Yet awareness of circumstances increases sense of presence. Moreover, mobility increases the value of communicating circumstances, because mobility enlarges the range of possible circumstances (Yea, I'm just here with my dog. Do you like these shoes? We're all covered in mud!)

    "Camera phone" describes a "camera" attached to a "phone." That evokes traditional patterns of use of cameras and phones, which in fact have been about making sense of presence of friends and family. But a term like "show and tell communicator" captures much better the potential value in making sense of presence.

    Douglas, thanks once again for your comments. The "show and tell" communicator is a great idea. The sooner we disconnect the earpiece(s?)/mic from the phone the better. Cheers Stuart

    Jon Husband:

    Stuart, two questions:

    1. Can you point me to what you think is the best definition of presence, online ?

    2. You mention pen and paper as a key means of storytelling. Are you familiar with the whole area of digital storytelling ? which in the examples I've witnessed participated in made excellent (in some cases, sublime) use of pictures, images, sound, spoken word and text.

    It seems to me that this is a natural "transfer" to the domain and purposes you have illuminated.

    There used to be (maybe still is) a workshop on this at Berkeley, and there was a guy who was one of the gurus doing a lot of this for corporations in '96 - '98. I believe his name was Dana Atchley, famously aka Ace the Space Cowboy in the '70's. I believe he passed away due to cancer about two years ago.

    I was privileged to see one of his performances in a vineyard's cave in Napa in 1997. Truly inspiring. Lots of presence, plus an extremely effective way of delivering a profound meaningful message.

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