On the May 15th broadcast of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson will be broadcast live for three minutes. It's not clear exactly what he'll say or do, but it will take place in real-time.
More precisely, the actor who plays Homer, Dan Castellaneta, will be connected to motion-capture technology. His voice and movement will "become" Homer on the screen.
What does this have to do with business? Plenty. It's the first advent of one of three technologies that will make business travel almost totally obsolete.
Tech #1: Real-Time Facial Mocap
The Homer live appearance is an example of real-time motion capture. In the past, motion capture was a two-step process. The computer records the actor's movements, which are then "rendered" into the animation. Example: the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.
Real-time motion capture records movements but then immediately translates them into animation. For gross body movements, you can do that with an Xbox and software from companies like Reallusion.
With the Homer live appearance, the same technology will be applied to facial expressions. My sources tell me that facial mocap using off-the-shelf devices (like an Xbox) is just around the corner.
Tech #2: Virtual Reality
Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know that virtual reality, after years of laboratory development, is finally turning into consumer products.
Probably the most exciting device in this area is the Oculus Rift, which creates creates an environment where you can turn your head in any direction and see a virtual world.
Today, the technology is being used primarily for computer games and experimental media. Here's a very basic example of the technology in action (just the first minute or so will give you the idea):
Set aside the geekiness of the two videos above and consider the concept of a virtual meeting room that combines real-time facial mocap. Using that combo, you could have a meeting with attendees from around the world but without anybody leaving their remote office.
With the exception of bad smells and playing footsie under the table, the virtual meeting would be exactly like a regular business meeting because you'd be able read body language and expressions. You'd know if you were boring people or whether they're intrigued and interested, just like in a "real" meeting.
Tech #3: Ultra-realistic Animation
Of course, it might be challenging to concentrate if everyone at the conference table looked like Homer Simpson. Fortunately, the kind of high quality animation used in big Hollywood productions is becoming available to mere mortals with regular PCs.
PC-based animation has been around for a long time. The challenge has always been overcoming what's called the "uncanny valley" where characters are realistic enough to be creepy but not so realistic that they feel "normal." (Cartoon characters like Homer Simpson don't suffer from this effect.)
As an experiment, I took some off-the-shelf tools from the software vendor Reallusion to see if I could make an animation that got out of the "uncanny valley." You can judge the results for yourself:
Is it perfect? Of course not. But, compare it to state-of-the-art big studio animation from just a few years ago (like The Polar Express). And it was done by yours truly, who's about as far from a professional animator as it's possible to get.
Ultra-realistic animation is mostly a matter of computer processing power. As computers continue to get more powerful, it will eventually be possible to do such animations in real-time, with real-time mocap.
Which brings us back to the concept of virtual meetings.
With enough processing power, a conference table of Homer Simpsons in virtual reality will look, well, just like you'd all look if you actually hopped a plane, stayed in a hotel and showed up at the same facility.
In the virtual world of the virtual meeting, you'll look exactly like yourself. Even better, because you can show yourself wearing a virtual suit, even if in the "real world" you're in your PJs at your home office.
For those of us who truly hate business travel (and I'm one of them), this technological revolution can't come soon enough. So, thanks, Homer! Maybe someday I can buy you a (virtual) beer.