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Presence in a Pocket. Phantasms of Immediacy in Japanese Mobile Telepresence Robotics



The paper addresses prospects of Japanese mobile telepresence robotics where small anthropomorphic devices are designed to act as intermediaries between remote interlocutors. First, an emic perspective of involved scientists and engineers is presented, focusing on example technologies being developed at the Hiroshi Ishiguro Lab in Kyoto (Japan), particularly a „cellphone-type tele-operated android [...] transmitting human presence“ called Elfoid. It represents an attempt to get “behind the veil of the machine” (Sekiguchi/Inami/Tachi 2001, about their RobotPHONE prototype which uses a similar concept) in that it is supposed to act as a solid substitute for a dialog partner through evoking a feeling of presence (sonzaikan in Japanese philosophy, the feeling that someone is sharing the same physical space). In such undertakings, specific utopian ideals of communication become apparent. Paradoxically, the high-tech developments aim at constituting seemingly immediate interactions, preferably bypassing any potentially troublesome interface. The existence of a phantasm of immediacy (Bolter/Grusin 2000) can be traced back to decisive moments in media history and belongs to the central promises of new technological interfaces. Interestingly, the engineers’ statements reveal a latent technophobia, an ambition to overcome the limitations of physical devices altogether and to move on to more direct means of communicative exchange (including the mythical dimension of telepathy). Two questions are of particular concern: 1. On what different levels does the notion of immediacy operate? Not only does it refer to a spiritual ideal of unmediated communion, but it also influences practical decisions in interface design. “Natural” and “Tangible” User Interfaces are the result of a practice of disguise in that they mask their factual hypermediacy to allow for a seamless knotting up of real and mediated environments. 2. What is the relationship between media and the immediate? The concept of immediacy has so far been met with an almost univocal intellectualist disdain on the part of media theorists. The reason for this rejection is simple enough: If one takes ideas of immediacy serious, the self-image of a whole field of study is called into question. The paper thus attempts to provide a contribution to the question of how media build on notions of immediacy. Any theoretical attempt at describing their operations should take into account the intricate relationship between media and the immediate.
communication +1
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Presence in a Pocket. Phantasms of Immediacy in
Japanese Mobile Telepresence Robotics
Timo Kaerlein
University of Paderborn (Germany), Research Training Group Automatisms>5+/<6/3817B./
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The history of the media of telecommunication can be conceptualized as a
succession of ever-new ways of negating distance by technological means. While
the hand-written letter set out to diminish the dimension of space by connecting
two distant interlocutors in mind, telegraphy seemingly made obsolete the
dimension of time as well. In fact, early telegraphic messaging outperformed
older means of telecommunication so profoundly, that contemporaries (and later
media theorists like Marshall McLuhan) described its effects as instantaneous
with regard to time and space.1 But the technological development didn’t stop at
having reached this supposed maximum of performance. Instead, broadcast media
proved that the transmission of sounds (radio) and images (television) offered
fertile ground for the emancipation of telecommunication from symbolic
exchange systems ultimately based on language. There is no indication that this
history has come to an end with the rise of the networked computer and its
multimedia capacities.
In the emerging field of telepresence robotics, an (often humanoid) artifact
serves as a substitute for a remote operator by offering him or her the opportunity
of material embodiment at a distant location.2 The technology is applied in
different contexts. On the one hand, it provides experts from diverse fields with a
device to work in remote settings, e.g. in dangerous environments like disaster
sites, oil-rigging platforms or in telemedicine.3 On the other hand, telepresence
robotics is an attractive field of research in undertakings of a more social nature,
i.e. attending business meetings, visiting relatives in another city or even intimate
exchange with a distant partner.4 This latter general scenario (social uses) is
1 Cf. Florian Sprenger, “A theory of media as a history of electricity: How McLuhans thoughts
about mediation are thwarted by their negation,” in Understanding media, today: Conference
proceedings, ed. Matteo Ciastellardi, Cristina de Miranda Almeida Barros and Carlos A. Scolari
(Barcelona: Editorial Universidad Oberta de Catalunya, 2011), 74-9. For the fundamental
paradox involved in this assumption, see below.
2 Cf. Ken Goldberg, ed., The robot in the garden: Telerobotics and telepistemology in the age of
the Internet (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001) for a collection of essays on the epistemology
of telepresence and Cheryl C. Bracken and Paul D. Skalski, eds., Immersed in media:
Telepresence in everyday life (New York: Routledge, 2010) for a recent treatment of current
telepresence technologies and practices.
3 This use of robots is stressed by Marvin Minsky in his early essay where he framed the term
‘telepresence’. Cf. Marvin Minsky, “Telepresence: A manifesto,” Omni, June 1980: 44-52.
4 Science fiction has come up with even more intriguing uses, including the full replacement of
everyday human interaction with that of artificial stand-ins (Surrogates, D: Jonathan Mostow,
USA 2009).
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especially popular in Japan, where robotic technology faces none of the
Terminator-inspired prejudice that is so common in Western narratives.5
The purpose of this article is to investigate a Japanese take on telepresence
robotics as it can be found in the prototypes built at the Hiroshi Ishiguro Lab
(HIL), which is part of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Laboratory
International (ATR) near Kyoto. The focus is on the Elfoid model which is a
smartphone-size, ‘humanoid’ communications device. Nine expert interviews
with leading scientists from the lab and other scientists from ATR conducted in
February and March 2012 provide the groundwork for an analysis rooted in media
theory. Especially the notion of immediacy is of interest here, both as a stated
research goal and as a recurring topos haunting media theory from its very
The Setting: Hiroshi Ishiguro Lab
A (notoriously) famous robot engineer and creator of the field of android science,
professor Hiroshi Ishiguro is the director of Osaka University’s Intelligent
Robotics Laboratory.6 His vision of telepresence robotics is quite different from
that of comparable projects – which often content themselves with creating
mobile platforms carrying a selection of sensors, generally oblivious to design
as he is not only an ambitious scientist but sees himself as an artist and a
philosopher as well. Ishiguro strives to answer questions like “What is human
presence and how can it be represented in remote locations?”, at the same time
pursuing even more venerable issues like “What actually is a human being?”.7 In
5 Cf. Frédéric Kaplan, “Who is afraid of the humanoid? Investigating cultural differences in the
acceptance of robots,” International Journal of Humanoid Robotics 1, no. 3 (2004): 1-16, Kaplan proposes the existence
of a ‘Frankenstein syndrome’ that influences the Western attitude towards technology since the
age of Romanticism. In Japan, on the other hand, not even the distinction between nature and
culture is so clear-cut, which makes attitudes towards humanoid robots more relaxed. For a
recent comparison of Japanese and UK attitudes towards humanoid robots challenging some of
Kaplan’s theses, cf. Dag S. Syrdal et al., “Examining the Frankenstein syndrome: An open-
ended cross-cultural survey,” in Social Robotics: Third International Conference, ICSR 2011,
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, November 24-25, 2011. Proceedings, ed. Bilge Mutlu et al.
(Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer 2011), 125-34.
6 For the foundations of android science, cf. Hiroshi Ishiguro, “Interactive humanoids and androids
as ideal interfaces for humans,” in Proceedings of the 11th international conference on
Intelligent user interfaces - IUI '06, ed. Cécile L. Paris and Candace L. Sidner (New
York: ACM Press, 2006), 2-9, doi: 10.1145/1111449.1111451.
7 Cf. Peter H. Kahn et al., “What is a human? Toward psychological benchmarks in the field of
human-robot interaction,” Interaction Studies 8, no. 3 (2007): 363-90,, and Shuichi Nishio, Hiroshi Ishiguro,
communication +1, Vol. 1 [2012], Art. 6
DOI: 10.7275/R52R3PM7
his robot design, he attempts to propose possible answers to such questions. The
most well known robots developed at Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory – located
halfway between Osaka and Kyoto in the premises of ATR where Ishiguro is a
distinguished fellow – are the Geminoid and Telenoid models. They represent two
complementary approaches to the common goal of transferring human presence to
a remote location. The presence effect shall ideally encompass both partners of a
conversation, the operator being embodied in robot shape somewhere else and the
human interlocutor interacting with that robot. Both should have the impression of
sharing a common space for convincing telepresence to occur. 8 While the
Geminoid models aim to realize this scenario by an impressive realism – they are
convincing twin copies of their human role models – the Telenoid model features
only a rudimentary humanoid shape. The highly realistic appearance of the
Geminoid stands for a top-down approach to the problem of conveying human
presence, while the confinement to just a few essential features (roughly human
shape, generic face, short extremities) of the Telenoid is basically the attempt to
build presence from the bottom up.9
The telepresence robots developed at Hiroshi Ishiguro Lab are neither
strictly science nor art. They are collaborative efforts to explore aspects of human
interaction and communication by the design of ‘human-like’ robots, called
androids. In the lab’s mission statement, the group’s rather unhumble self-
positioning is made clear:
The end of the information age will coincide with the beginning of
the robot age. However, we will not soon see a world in which
humans and androids walk the streets together, like in movies or
cartoons; instead, information technology and robotics will
and Norihiro Hagita, “Can a teleoperated android represent personal presence? A case study
with children,Psychologia 50, no. 4 (2007): 330-42, doi:10.2117/psysoc.2007.330.
8 This is not a trivial task. Hubert L. Dreyfus has pointed out that intercorporeality (a term by
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, signifying a more basic “sense of being in the presence of other
people”) is absent from telepresence and that it might not be realizable at all. Cf. Hubert L.
Dreyfus, “Telepistemology: Descartes's last stand,” in Goldberg, The robot in the garden, 48-63,
61. In Japanese philosophy (and consequently in robotics research), the term sonzaikan is used
to express precisely this feeling of shared presence.
9 While even more minimalist solutions are being pursued. Cf. Hideaki Ogawa’s series of design
experiments titled SmallConnection at
(accessed 05/25/2012). They explore different forms of haptic, non-verbal telecommunication
that allow users to feel each other’s presence over a distance, without resorting to any
anthropomorphisms at all. The most recent project at HIL is called Hugvie and resembles a
huggable pillow equipped with a vibration motor into which a user’s cellphone can be inserted,
supposedly allowing a more intimate conversational setting. Cf. (accessed 06/11/2012).
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gradually fuse so that people will likely only notice when robot
technology is already in use in various locations.
Our role will be to lead this integration of information and robotics
technologies by constantly proposing new scientific and
technological concepts. Toward this, knowledge of art and
philosophy will be invaluable. Technology has made art
"reproducible"; likewise, artistic sense has contributed to the
formation of new technologies, and artistic endeavors themselves
are supported by philosophical contemplation and analysis.
Hereafter, human societies will continue to change due to
"informationization" and robotization; in this ever-changing setting,
artistic activities and philosophical speculation will allow us to
comprehend the essential natures of humans and society, so that we
can produce truly novel science and technological innovations in a
research space which lies beyond current notions of "fields" and
boundaries of existing knowledge.10
Group leader Ishiguro’s reputation extends the boundaries of the robot
engineering scene. In May 2011 he was listed in the AsianScientist’s “Ultimate
List of 15 Asian Scientists to Watch”.11 He is an internationally renowned
conference speaker and the group has participated in art and technology festivals
like Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. Additionally, some of the robots have
starred in android-human theatre performances, directed by Oriza Hirata. His
fame notwithstanding, Ishiguro’s robots are considered by many commentators to
have a frightening appearance. The Uncanny Valley theory is often mentioned in
scientific and newspaper articles as well as blog posts referring to their design.12
The model central for this paper is no exception in this regard.
10 (accessed 05/25/2012).
11 Juliana Chan, The ultimate list of 15 Asian scientists to watch,” AsianScientist, May 15 2011, (accessed 05/25/2012).
12 The Uncanny Valley theory, originally proposed by Masahiro Mori, “The uncanny valley,”
Energy 7, no. 4 (1970): 33-5, states
that humans tend to react positively towards increases in human-likeness in robots, but only up
to a point. When robots look very realistic or approach an almost life-like behavior, they can
have an unsettling effect on human observers. Ishiguro reacted to the criticism in Christoph
Bartneck et al., “My robotic doppelgänger - a critical look at the Uncanny Valley,” in
Proceedings of the 18th IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive
Communication RO-MAN 2009 (Piscataway, NJ: IEEE, 2009), 26976, doi:
10.1109/ROMAN.2009.5326351, utterly rejecting the uncanny valley hypothesis in favor of
designing highly-realistic androids.
communication +1, Vol. 1 [2012], Art. 6
DOI: 10.7275/R52R3PM7
Elfoid: a “Cellphone-Type Tele-Operated Android”
The Elfoid P1 is a miniaturized version of the Telenoid model and was introduced
to the public in March 2011. The current prototype version is approximately 20
cm long and resembles a human baby to some extent. It contains no actuators as
the implementation proves difficult due to the small scale and limited battery
power. Its bigger cousin Telenoid is equipped with such actuators that make it
possible to render some facial expressions and gestures that the robot’s operator
performs remotely. In the case of the Elfoid, the technical interior is limited to a
standard smartphone processor with SIM card (capable of accessing the mobile
phone wireless network), a single button located in the chest, an LED light that
can switch from red to green to display if a connection is established, a
microphone in the leg and speakers in the head. Its texture is made of robust but
stretchable urethane gel and resembles human skin. The developers plan to
implement a temperature sensor, accelerometer, and image and voice recognition
Strictly speaking, the Elfoid is not an actual robot as it doesn’t have any
autonomous movement capabilities. With the given technical specifications in
mind, the device at its current state of development can best be described as a
curiously shaped mobile phone casing. However, it draws on three genealogies in
a unique combination: that of the social robot pet (comparable to popular models
like the therapeutic robot seal Paro), the children’s baby doll toy and the mobile
phone in its function as an enabler of phatic communication. As this article is
more concerned with commenting on certain ideas of communication and
persistent phantasms surfacing in media development, the inferiority of the
investigated device is acknowledged, but bracketed for the time being. Certainly,
the Elfoid is no adequate solution to the alleged problems of telecommunication it
insinuates. It shall rather be read as the symptomatic addressing of an assumed
systematic shortcoming of mediated communication that seems to need fixing.
Reactions by journalists and bloggers were mixed. 13 The idea of
combining smartphones and social robots is not new. It has been proposed by
13 Elfoid has respectively been described as “the world’s most terrifying mobile phone” (Gerald
Lynch, “Introducing Elfoid: The world’s most terrifying mobile phone,” TechDigest, March 4
2011,, “an animated sperm-like doll”
(Ben Coxworth, “Elfoid: creepy mini-robot meets smartphone,” gizmag, March 4 2011,, an “unholy robo-fetus”
(Tim Hornyak, “Unholy robo-fetus Elfoid is your new cell phone,” CNET News, March 3 2011, and “a squishy and wiggly cell-phone”
(Anonymous, “Elfoid: Telenoid’s unholy, possessed baby,” RobotShop Blog, March 3 2011, All websites
accessed 05/25/2012.
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Japanese scientists in 200114, and researchers at Simon Frazer University in
Vancouver have developed prototypes of “dancing cellphones” capable of
expressing various emotions by simulated gestures and a video display.15
Figure 1: Elfoid prototype. “Elfoid P1 was developed by ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory.”
The Elfoid project website summarizes the design goals:
The Elfoid we have currently developed is an innovative
communication medium which conveys individuals' presence to
remote locations using voice, appearance, touch, and motion. Its
14 Dairoku Sekiguchi, Masahiko Inami, Susumu Tachi: “RobotPHONE: RUI for Interpersonal
Communication,” CHI2001 Extended Abstracts, 2001, 277-278, (accessed 05/25/2012). The motivation for
building a teddy-bear like mobile phone with motion capabilities is described as follows: “With
traditional communication methods such as telephones and videoconferencing systems, a user
can only feel the existence of the person behind the veil of the machine. In contrast, a user of
RobotPHONE can feel the existence of the person as if he was directly in front of her.” (ibid.,
15 Ben Coxworth, “Avatar technology is here in the form of a dancing cellphone,” gizmag, May
12 2010, (accessed
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DOI: 10.7275/R52R3PM7
design --easily recognizable at first glance to be nothing but a
human, capable of being interpreted equally as male or female, old
or young-- and soft, pleasant-to-the-touch exterior have been
implemented in cellular phone size. By combining voice-based
conversation with appearance and touch capable of effectively
communicate [sic!] an individual's presence, the user of this
technology can feel as if they were conversing in a natural fashion
with someone directly in front of them. Furthermore, the developed
system eventually departs from the button pressing approach now
used in cellular phones, in favor of image and voice recognition
technology, with the goal of realizing an interface which anyone
can use. Just as the Internet and cellular phones has [sic!] greatly
affected our life styles, this new form of presence-conveying
communication medium, Elfoid, will further change our lives in
the near future.16
The italicized passages in the quote highlight the central utopia of
telecommunication that is expressed in the design of the Elfoid android phone.17
An “interface which anyone can use” promises to provide an even more
trivialized interaction than the current smartphone generation with its
touchscreens and app infrastructure. The goal of creating “natural” conversational
settings leans on the old-fashioned face-to-face encounter which still seems to set
the benchmark for many new media technologies. By “conveying presence to
remote locations”, the Elfoid phone is supposed to offer its users the possibility to
literally get in touch more often and more directly than with other
telecommunication media. It evokes the scenario of carrying your partner or close
friend around with you in your pocket and promises to add a haptic dimension to
the interaction that mobile phones fail to deliver to date.
The following analysis of interviews with several involved scientists at
ATR shall provide a summary of the emic perspective. Scientists were asked
about the wider research and design goals and their respective visions about the
Elfoid prototype and telepresence robotics in general. Quotes are anonymized, as
agreed upon with the dialog partners. Several statements contain colloquial
expressions and/or mistakes that were not corrected.
16 (accessed 05/25/2012, emphasis added T.
17 Not to be confused with the current smartphones running on an Android operating system.
Though the fact that the latter uses a small robot as a mascot is remarkable in itself.
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The Material: Evaluation of Expert Interviews
The main purpose of the Elfoid research project was consistently seen as
providing a further component in the endeavor to figure out the best means of
conveying human presence, in a mobile variant of “presence in a pocket”18.
Simultaneously, it was regarded as innovative insofar as it opens up potential user
groups and usage scenarios that the other telepresence robots developed at HIL
were excluded from. Several scientists named old people as the main target group
as this part of the population purportedly has a genuine interest in easy-to-use
technology that provides them with a means to engage in social interaction, e.g.
with their grandchildren, but also in doctor-patient relationships. Pre-teenage girls
were also named as a potential target group as they supposedly like holding hands
and hugging each other, which is generally uncommon behavior in Japan. As an
Elfoid is “more human-like, natural, a living kind of creature should be better”19
suited for this phatic communication function than conventional mobile phones
with their brick- or box-shaped exterior.
The Elfoid phone was generally seen to be a more ‘natural’ means of
communication as it is intuitively usable and resembles a small human being,
thereby creating fewer cognitive burdens than mobile phones with their diverse
functionalities. “By identifying the way people act, I’m hoping to create these
natural interfaces, very natural, seamless, invisible interfaces with robot
technology …”20 Several scientists (including Professor Ishiguro) proposed the
theory that the human brain is wired to face-to-face social interactions and
therefore poorly equipped for cell phone communication.
In some cases […] we don’t get easily adapted to those new
technologies, it’s kind of a splitting (or how should I say?) a divide
between the body rules or the physical nature and what we are
actually using. So I think it should be much better for the basic
human stresses or comfortableness to use a different kind of device
that is more closely situated to the original logic of
Physical, face-to-face interactions are users’ true native machinery
for dealing with the world.22
18 Personal interview with scientist 1 at ATR, February 2012.
19 Personal interview with scientist 2 at ATR, February 2012. The scientist explicitly categorized
different communication goals, e.g. information transmission, receiving or sending instructions
and social bonding.
20 Personal interview with scientist 3 at ATR, February 2012.
21 Scientist 2.
22 Personal interview with scientist 4 at ATR, March 2012.
communication +1, Vol. 1 [2012], Art. 6
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This is mirrored in statements by Professor Ishiguro:
Actually, the smartphone is just a small computer. But we don’t
need to have so many functions for the mobile phone. So my
question is: What happens after this? [showing a smartphone]
[…] The smartphone is going to have a voice recognition function.
Then we don’t need to have an interface. At that time, my question
is: Do you want to talk to this, this black box? [pointing to
smartphone] Or do you want to talk to something more human-
[…] We don’t like to talk to a black box. We want to talk to a
human because our brain is designed so.23
The skin-like surface of the Elfoid model was seen as one of the big advantages
compared to conventional smartphone technology. While touchscreens are widely
available, the tactile experience doesn’t differ much across devices. One artistic
collaborator to the Elfoid project suggested that in the digital era people may be
missing the deep haptic satisfaction and inspiration that is related to touching
various physical surfaces. The often neglected sense of touch is able to convey
very detailed (‘high-resolution’) information, which so far – hasn’t been
technically implemented successfully. A skin-like texture is supposed to be far
superior in this respect, especially in the creation of presence effects, “because
essentially the touching is also giving and getting, really something in depth of the
presence of a person.”24 Touching is unique among the senses as it necessarily
establishes a reciprocal relationship – touching and being touched are inseparable
and even undermine the subject-object division to some extent.
When asked if the Elfoid could hypothetically be equipped with some sort
of artificial intelligence (AI) in that way following the virtual assistant model
pursued by Apple with its iPhone 4S Siri concept most interviewed scientists
couldn’t provide any detailed answers, partly due to non-disclosure agreements.
What could be gathered though, was that a new, semi-automatic version of Elfoid
is being developed that could operate as an intermediate agent, e.g. between
people suffering from dementia and their caretakers. Equipped with advanced
voice recognition software, this robot could act as a supportive system,
interpreting the often idiosyncratic ways of expression of demented people and
23 Personal interview with Hiroshi Ishiguro, 24 February 2012. This evolutionary line of reasoning
with the consequence that the human brain is somewhat antiquated in relation to modern
media is prominently featured in Byron Reeves and Clifford I. Nass, The media equation:
How people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places (Stanford:
CSLI Publ., 1998), 12.
24 Personal interview with artistic collaborator to the Elfoid project, March 2012.
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translating them to the nursing staff. Another scenario that was mentioned by
Ishiguro is that of the Elfoid as a conversational agent, being able to have simple
autonomous conversations with people by accessing databases via cloud
computing services. In specific situations, this would prove to be a feasible if
somewhat ethically questionable scenario: “[…] if we record the conversations of
elderly people, they are just talking the same things every day.”25 This model
would in fact diverge greatly from the current version, as it would no longer act as
a telepresence platform, but rather become an active entity in a social interaction.
It raises the “problem of who does it represent: Are you talking to the robot or are
you talking to a person through the robot? You have to resolve that ambiguity.”26
Interestingly, the robots were generally seen as merely the most suitable
available device to create telepresence effects. But they are not an end in
themselves. Several scientists stressed the circumstance that eventually “we want
to get rid of those devices, that is one idea.”27 A general discomfort about
mediated social interaction, especially with mobile devices in public spaces, is
expressed as a very specific concern:
It’s not so smart to have something in your hand, always holding it,
looking at it and being in danger of bumping into other people. It’s
very dangerous. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have such
In this context, brain-to-machine and even brain-to-brain communication
solutions were mentioned as a possible future of interpersonal mobile
telecommunication. As all emotions and sensual experiences are essentially
reducable to neuronal activity, these could hypothetically be simulated, rendering
any physical device obsolete. It comes as no surprise then, that a separate
department at ATR, the Brain Information Communication Research Laboratory
Group, is developing ‘interfaces’ – while, of course, “the ultimate interface is
interfaceless”29 – in exactly this area.
We take signals from the brain, try to translate them, we try to
decode the brain language, but we don’t know how to show it.
Okay, let’s use machines as something that expresses them. Of
course it would be perfect for us, if we wouldn’t even need
something in the middle to communicate, but we just don’t know
25 Hiroshi Ishiguro, 24 February 2012.
26 Scientist 4.
27 Personal interview with scientist 2 at ATR, February 2012.
28 Ibid.
29 Personal interview with scientist 5 at ATR, March 2012.
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how to put the signals back into other persons’ brains. That’s
something we don’t know. […]
For now, we use something as a medium. Later, when we could
reach the other part, then we omit this medium. 30
The abovementioned artistic collaborator even goes further imaginatively:
So far, Telenoid […] or whatever, everything is using media as
physical objects. It means, we are interacting with something. Then,
something is transmitting the information. But if telepathy is
realized, […] we are losing interaction ecology. It’s going to be a
big paradigm shift.31
The idea of telepathy has usually taken the place of a mythically inspired ideal of
communication 32 , but proves worrisome from a designer’s point of view.
“[T]elepathy or brain transmission is totally destroying the creativity of human
beings.”33 Notwithstanding this objection, an ideal of unmediated communication
has accompanied the history of media from its very beginnings and has inspired
some scholarly initiative into a fundamental paradox which will be scrutinized in
the following chapter. It will finally shed some light on the strange congruence of
topoi that at first glance seem connected only by their prefix – telepresence
robotics, telephony and telepathy.
Media and Immediacy: An Intricate Relationship
The problem of immediacy has been treated from a variety of angles in media and
communication theory. At least three discursive fields are noteworthy:
1) the discourse on (tele)presence34,
30 Personal interview with scientist 6 at ATR, March 2012.
31 Artistic collaborator.
32 As an essentially unmediated form of communication, telepathy (at least hypothetically) avoids
the distortion of messages caused by noise that has troubled the mathematical theory of
communication. This is evident in Warren Weaver, “The mathematics of communication,” (first
edition 1949) in Communication theory, ed. C. David Mortensen, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick,
NJ: Transaction Publ., 2008), 2738, where Weaver explains: “When I talk to you, my brain is
the information source, yours the destination; my vocal system is the transmitter, and your ear
with the eight nerve is the receiver.” (ibid., 29). In this understanding, each and every medium
(including natural language) is not only a channel, but a potential source of noise in an exchange
of information between brains.
33 Artistic collaborator.
34 In the presence discourse, the problem of immediacy is only treated implicitly. The older
philosophical and poststructuralist discourses on (the metaphysics of) presence are not the
subject of this paper. Rather, presence is framed as the perceptual absence of mediation which
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2) remediation theory,
3) recent contributions from German media theory, centered around an
anaesthetics of media.
The presence discourse starting in the late 1990s brings together researchers from
various nationalities and fields to investigate theoretical concepts and
technological applications, leaning towards empirical operationalization.35 Central
resources including a large bibliography and a list of researchers are gathered on
the website of the International Society for Presence Research (ISPR).36 A
comprehensive attempt at conceptualization by Matthew Lombard and Theresa
Ditton resulted in an understanding of presence as “the perceptual illusion of
nonmediation”37. This preliminary definition has been discussed and extended to
put together an explication statement. The first paragraph reads:
Presence (a shortened version of the term “telepresence”) is a
psychological state or subjective perception in which even though
part or all of an individual’s current experience is generated by
and/or filtered through human-made technology, part or all of the
individual’s perception fails to accurately acknowledge the role of
the technology in the experience. Except in the most extreme cases,
the individual can indicate correctly that s/he is using the
technology, but at *some level* and to *some degree*, her/his
perceptions overlook that knowledge and objects, events, entities,
and environments are perceived as if the technology was not
involved in the experience. Experience is defined as a person’s
observation of and/or interaction with objects, entities, and/or
events in her/his environment; perception, the result of perceiving,
is defined as a meaningful interpretation of experience.38
This approach relies heavily on a subject position and is suited for use in
experimental psychology, neuroscience and interface design. From the viewpoint
can be effected by certain media technologies, and its implications for a theory of the media is
35 The discussion about terminology has taken place in Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton, “At
the heart of it all: The concept of presence,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3,
no. 2 (1997),, Guiseppe Riva, Fabrizio Davide
and W. A. Ijsselsteijn, eds., Being there: Concepts, effects and measurements of user presence
in synthetic environments, (Amsterdam, Washington D.C, Tokyo: IOS Press; Ohmsha, 2003)
and Kwan M. Lee, “Presence, explicated,” Communication Theory 14, no. 1 (2004): 27-50,
among others.
36 (accessed 05/25/2012).
37 Lombard and Ditton, “At the heart of it all”.
38 International Society for Presence Research. (2000). The Concept of Presence: Explication
Statement. Retrieved 4/29/2012 from
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of media theory it is less useful than the original proposition as it is of a rather
technical nature and oversimplifies matters when, for example, resorting to
notions like “the true nature of the physical world”39 in exemplifying the concept.
Returning thus to the original concept explication, Lombard and Ditton continue:
The illusion of nonmediation can occur in two distinct ways: (a)
the medium can appear to be invisible or transparent and function
as would a large open window, with the medium user and the
medium content (objects and entities) sharing the same physical
environment; and (b) the medium can appear to be transformed
into something other than a medium, a social entity.40
These are quite accurately the major goals of successful interaction design in
telepresence robotics. The robot’s operator should ideally have the subjective
experience of physically being present at a remote location (transparency of the
interface), while his surrogate self is transformed into a social entity in its own
right (with the development of AI possibly creating some confusion as to who it is
that you are actually talking to). Presence apparently can come in many different
shapes – the article outlines six possible dimensions of the phenomenon – which
makes it hard to theorize. So far, the word immediacy hasn’t been used in the
discussion. It remains to be seen if it can add something to the debate around
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin proposed their theory of remediation
in 2000 that operates according to two different logics or “strategies of
representation” 41 . One is transparent immediacy, the other hypermediacy.
Whereas the first logic attempts to efface the medium and hide the process of
remediation (the way ‘new’ media refashion ‘old’ media on their own terrain), the
second one underlines the medium and exposes that same process. However, both
logics build on and trigger a “desire for immediacy”42, resulting in a thorough
Our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces
of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of
multiplying them.43
39 Ibid., paragraph 2.
40 Lombard and Ditton, “At the heart of it all”.
41 Jay D. Bolter, “Remediation and the desire for immediacy,” Convergence: The International
Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 6, no. 62 (2000): 62-71, 62. doi:
10.1177/135485650000600107. Remediation theory is developed fully in Jay David Bolter and
Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding new media (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000).
42 Bolter, “Remediation and the desire for immediacy”, 62.
43 Ibid., 63.
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If Bolter and Grusin are correct in their assumption that a desire for immediacy is
a major driver of media development, media are contradictory in that they both
fuel this demand by providing ever more convincing immersive experiences and
at the same time achieve this by ever more sophisticated interface solutions
resulting in long chains of mediation. Bolter and Grusin apply their theoretical
framework to a plethora of historical phenomena, therein demonstrating its
empirical usefulness. Their model is a dialectic one in which new media are
frequently discussed in terms of their unprecedented degree of immediacy, until
the initial enthrallment makes room for the unavoidable insight that the specific
qualities (and limitations) of any medium reinstall themselves on closer scrutiny.
But the two logics also necessarily interoperate: The “amazement” about a
seemingly immediate media experience requires an awareness of the medium:
If the medium really disappeared, as is the apparent goal of the
logic of transparency, the viewer would not be amazed because she
would not know of the medium’s presence.44
In the 1990s, virtual reality (VR) seemed to be the pinnacle of this two-faced
endeavor: a fully artificial high-tech environment that creates the illusion of
‘being there’. Grusin, in his 2010 book Premediation. Affect and Mediality after
9/11, proposed an update of this observation:
Immediacy after 9/11 materializes itself as an unconstrained
connectivity so that one can access with no restrictions one’s
socially networked mediated life at any time or anywhere through
any of one’s media devices.45
This revised version of the idea of immediacy is vital for an understanding of
mobile telepresence robotics. It points to the circumstance that immediacy can
and does operate on many different levels, e.g. as an approximation to realism in
representation, as an authentic feeling of being there, as direct access to content
(exemplified in the fascination with ubiquitous touchscreen interfaces) and as
unrestricted connectivity (anytime-anywhere rhetoric). On all these layers,
immediacy operates as a central promise and driver of technological change.
Mobile telepresence robotics presents an interesting case where several kinds of
immediacy intersect in a hybrid device that draws on multiple genealogies (as
explicated above).
In the last decade, the notion of immediacy in and through the media has
been touched upon by several authors in German media theory. Compared to the
first two discourses discussed here, their focus is purely on theory and a
44 Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 158.
45 Richard A. Grusin, Premediation: Affect and mediality after 9/11 (Basingstoke, New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2.
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fundamental thinking in terms of media. Here, immediacy has come to occupy a
position as a productive ‘other’ of media theory, although a comparative summary
of the single contributions is still due. Florian Sprenger, in a talk given in Bochum
in 200846, has pointed to the dispersed publications that are concerned with the
circumstance that the processuality of media often remains invisible and that it
is indeed essential for it to remain so to guarantee an undisturbed operation. This
constitutive invisibility – respectively described in terms of a negative media
theory47, ‘aisthetische Neutralität’48 and an anaesthetics of media49is intricately
connected to the phenomenon of immediacy.
Media make readable, audible, visible, perceptible, but all this
with the tendency to erase themselves and their constitutive
participation in these sensualities, to become, as it were,
imperceptible, anaesthetic […].50
If a mediated experience often appears as unmediated, if media strive to hide their
mediality, then the notion of immediacy is crucial for any attempt to theorize ‘the
media’. An act of withdrawal in performance might actually be their defining
characteristic. Immediacy can also serve as an analytic concept connecting media
theory to empirical instantiations of media, as practices and visionary
anticipations are often directed by notions of immediacy. But the relations
between media and immediacy are even more complicated.
As Tobias Wilke has shown51, media are involved in the shaping of
discursive conceptions of immediacy altogether. What comes to be regarded as
the epitome of immediacy at any given historical moment, is partly determined by
the specific performances of contemporary media technologies. In other words:
There is no immediacy outside the media. Any definition of immediacy can only
be given in a gesture of demarcation (as is evident in the fact that the word itself
46 Florian Sprenger, “Was wissen Medien darüber, dass es sie gar nicht gibt?,” lecture at the annual
conference of the Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft "Was wissen Medien?" October 2008 2-
4, Institut für Medienwissenschaft, Ruhr-Universität Bochum,
47 Cf. Dieter Mersch, “Medialität und Undarstellbarkeit: Einleitung in eine 'negative'
Medientheorie,” in Performativität und Medialität, ed. Sybille Krämer (München: Fink, 2004),
48 Cf. Sybille Krämer, Medium, Bote, Übertragung: Kleine Metaphysik der Medialität
(Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2008), 25-33.
49 Cf. Joseph Vogl, “Medien-Werden: Galileis Fernrohr,” Archiv für Mediengeschichte 1, no. 1
(2001): 115-23.
50 Ibid., 122 [translation T. K.].
51 Cf. Tobias Wilke, Medien der Unmittelbarkeit: Dingkonzepte und Wahrnehmungstechniken
1918 - 1939 (München: Fink, 2010).
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is composed of the root ‘mediacy’ plus the negative prefix ‘im’). Referring to
Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological
Reproducibility, Wilke concludes that immediacy is not simply obliterated by
media – this would be the argument made by a majority of media scholars52 – but
rather undergoes a process of sublation (‘Aufhebung’) in the Hegelian sense. The
immediate becomes the dreamchild of a mediated world.53 It is discursively
addressed again and again and greatly influences the anticipatory horizon of any
media utopia. The “will to immediacy manifests itself as a productive and
organizing impetus”54. In the next section, the discourse(s) on immediacy will be
related to the project of mobile telepresence robotics, as it was laid out in the first
half of this paper.
Immediacy and Mobile Telepresence Robotics
As was indicated above, Elfoid as a potential herald of mobile telepresence
robotics actualizes several different notions of immediacy in its character as a
hybrid medium. McLuhan’s well known dictum that the content of any new
medium is an old medium can be applied quite literally in this case. A
telepresence robot of curious looks on the outside, Elfoid essentially remains a
mobile phone hidden inside a ‘humanoid’ shape. Both the discourse on
telepresence robotics and that on mobile telephony are fueled by the topos of
Luna Dolezal has pointed out in a phenomenological discussion on the
“possibility of re-embodiment through technological interfaces”55 that the crucial
challenge in interface design lies in simulating to some extent the “prereflective
and immediate manner”56 in which the body is engaged with its environment.
Following Merleau-Ponty’s understanding, in successful and healthy motor-
intentionality the body becomes transparent to some extent so that the performing
subject doesn’t have to constantly reflect its actions. The same applies to the
interaction with objects like a blind man’s stick which effectively becomes an
extension of its owner’s body schema and other media technologies insofar as
they ‘vanish’ in favor of an interaction with content/the world.
52 Cf. Hartmut Winkler, Basiswissen Medien (Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 2008), 39: “There is no
‘immediacy’ in the media” [translation T. K.].
53 Cf. Wilke, Medien der Unmittelbarkeit, 229 [translation T. K.].
54 Ibid., 20.
55 Luna Dolezal, “The remote body: The phenomenology of telepresence and re-embodiment,”
Human Technology 5, no. 2 (2009): 208-26, 208,
56 Ibid., 214.
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Telepresence robotics struggles precisely with the task to achieve this
transparency of the interface that would allow for a) a convincing illusion of
being present in a remote place or social setting from the perspective of the
operator, and b) a complementary illusion on the part of the physically co-present
interlocutor, i.e. the feeling of being in the presence of a social actor while in fact
facing a technical device. The haptic dimension of telepresence robotics, further
amplified by the employment of a skin-like surface material, is designed to evoke
a feeling of directness otherwise denied by media of telecommunication. It has to
be remarked that the engineers engage in the rather ‘touchy’ project of boldly
reverse-engineering a face-to-face interaction as the closest model to an
‘immediate’ exchange imaginable from a common sense perspective. But, as the
allusions to telepathy and the prospects of brain-to-brain communication have
demonstrated, media are apparently believed to be able to outperform even
traditional bodily encounters in this regard by providing an interface that allows
the immediate exchange of minds.57
Mobile telephony on the other hand carries its own set of implications that
are summarized in the above-quoted notion of “unconstrained connectivity” in
combination with the practical ubiquity and close association with the human
body – of personal communications devices. Katz and Aakhus introduced the
socio-logic of perpetual contact as the central element of their Apparatgeist theory.
The compelling image of perpetual contact is the image of pure
communication, which, as Peters […] argues, is an idealization of
communication committed to the prospect of sharing one's mind
with another, like the talk of angels that occurs without the
constraints of the body.58
Several authors have pointed out that the mobile phone should rather be described
in terms of its character as a personal medium, serving individual needs - not only
of communication - and not only used while on the way. “The key feature in the
57 Sigmund Freud believed telepathy to be a primordial mode of communication that has just been
supplanted by a system of signs which are perceived with the sense organs. In this perspective,
the history of mediation is one of degeneration. Media are then appreciated to the extent that
they can evoke their mythical heritage. For this interesting alternative media history cf. Simone
Bernet, “Telekommunikation und ihr mythischer Hintergrund: Notizen zu einer
medienphilosophischen Vernunft der Telepathie,” in Dis Connecting Media: Technik Praxis und
Ästhetik des Telefons: vom Festnetz zum Handy, ed. Ulla Autenrieth et al. (Basel: Christoph-
Merian-Verl, 2011), 10516.
58 James E. Katz and Mark A. Aakhus, “Conclusion: making meaning of mobiles: a theory of
Apparatgeist,” in Perpetual contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance,
ed. James E. Katz and Mark A. Aakhus (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), 30118,
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practice of mobile communication is connectivity, rather than mobility.” 59
Additionally, the mobile phone is usually in close contact to its wearer’s body, up
to the point that it is increasingly integrated into the body image (like other
personal objects or clothing).60 “As constantly worn and automatically used
devices they [mobile phones, T. K.] are losing their character as mere
communication tools but are becoming more and more a part of the user's
body.”61 Regine Buschauer has questioned the rhetoric of perpetual contact in
observing that the promise of presence-at-a-distance is in fact transferred to the
device itself: “always ‘there’, ‘near’ and ‘in touch’ connected is not the other, but
the cell phone”62.
When Ishiguro claims about the Elfoid: “If you hold it, it will be a part of
your body”63, the confusion of several discourses of immediacy becomes evident.
It seems that it is not so much the communication partner at the other end of the
line who is the true object of desire, but rather the artifact of the mobile phone.
The prospect of immediacy is subtly shifted from access to the interlocutor’s mind
to an intimate relationship with the device itself. It is no surprise then that
designers try their best to avoid the “nightmare of the black box”64 (see Ishiguro’s
statement above) and to provide users with devices that are rather soft and user-
friendly. As apparatuses hide their technical condition, they can come to be
accepted either as a social counterpart or even as an incorporated body part.65 In
59 Jack Linchuan Qiu and Araba Sey, Mobile communication and society: A global perspective
(Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007), 248.
60 Cf. Leopoldina Fortunati, “The mobile phone as technological artefact,” in Thumb culture: The
meaning of mobile phones for society, ed. Peter Glotz (Bielefeld: transcript, 2005), 14960, and
Virpi Oksman and Pirjo Rautiainen, “"Perhaps it is a body part": How the mobile phone became
an organic part of the everday lives of Finnish children and teenagers,” in Machines that become
us: The social context of personal communication technology, ed. James E. Katz (New
Brunswick, N.J: Transaction publishers, 2003), 293308.
61 Erika Linz, “Society on the move: The success story of the mobile phone,” in Heinrich Hertz
(1857 - 1894) and the development of communication: Proceedings of the Symposium for
History of Science, Hamburg, October 8 - 12, 2007, ed. Gudrun Wolfschmidt
(Norderstedt: Books on Demand, 2008), 60114, 612.
62 Regine Buschauer, Mobile Räume: Medien- und diskursgeschichtliche Studien zur Tele-
Kommunikation (Bielefeld: transcript, 2010), 304 [translation T. K.].
63 This slogan is used by Ishiguro in presentations of the Elfoid device. Cf. for example the image
at (accessed 06/11/2012).
64 Fortunati, “The mobile phone as technological artefact”, 153.
65 It is also possible to interpret the Elfoid technology as an ironic comment on the desire for
immediacy, in the sense that the diorama, phenakistoscope and stereoscope constantly
undermined their audiences’ wishes by confronting them with “eerie” images and “unwieldy”
devices. Cf. Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 37 in reference to Jonathan Crary’s account. If
there is something like a secret wish to hold a distant conversation partner in your hands when
engaging in telecommunication, it is a naïve approach to design an anthropomorphic device for
this purpose. Cultural factors also play their part. What may seem to be a rather strange and
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any case, the overarching goal in the creation of (tele)presence effects is to let
users ‘forget’ that they are in fact dealing with media. While this is designers’
declared shibboleth, one must keep in mind that immediacy remains a play of
thought due to its logical impossibility. Users actively engage in mediated
environments and any subjective feeling of immediacy can only be the
consequence of a willing suspension of disbelief. To be clear, Elfoid is no more
immediate than any regular mobile phone neither from the perspective of the
remote operator nor the person currently holding it – but it nurtures an old dream
by giving it a somewhat clumsy shape.
The mobile telepresence robot Elfoid occupies a position at the intersection of
several - sometimes rivaling - promises of immediacy. The paper has outlined
some of the diverse discursive threads that meet in the admittedly questionable
prototype device. It remains to be seen whether the different notions of
immediacy imaginatively attached to the device will eventually come to mutually
enhance each other - which could be an ingenious way to introduce telepresence
robotics to a wider audience by utilizing the well-established discourse of absent
presence and bodily integration in mobile telephony. It is equally likely though
that the highly-dosed infusion of different notions of immediacy will overstretch
the device. Where, indeed, is the place of immediacy in the early 21st century? Is
it the promise of being always-on, of having uninterrupted access, as Grusin
proclaims? Or is it rather the continuation of the quest for an ever-higher realism
in constructing immersive environments that create the illusion of ‘being there’ in
an immediate sense? Does immediacy have to rely on physicality, e.g. on haptic
impressions of some sort, or is it more appropriate to think of it purely in terms of
neuronal stimulation, circumventing any representational intermediaries? A
typology of the paradox of immediacy in the media is called for to disentangle the
conceptual huddle.
At least one fundamental insight can be gained from the investigation of
media hybrids like Elfoid. The concept of immediacy has so far been met with an
almost univocal intellectualist disdain on the part of media theorists. The reason
for this rejection is simple enough: If one takes ideas of immediacy seriously, the
self-image of a whole field of study is called into question. Media studies are
grouped around the assumption that media matter - including fervent
proclamations of a primacy of the media from McLuhans’s “The medium is the
hypermediated device from a Western perspective, could be experienced as a transparent
interface in Japan. Cf. ibid., 73.
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message” to Kittler’s “Media determine our situation”66. Any conception of
immediacy seems to be incompatible with the emphasis placed on the
multifaceted processes of mediation that are generally accepted to be at work in
society. It can be argued though that immediacy is a core term of media theory
insofar as it simultaneously serves as a negative foil to mediation and as the
utopian momentum of media development. In fact, McLuhan’s original
contributions were very much influenced by the fascination with electric speed as
a sort of “immediate mediation”67. Paradoxically, media are discovered as an
object of scholarly investigation at the historical moment of their apparent
dissolution. Consequently, attention has to be paid to the ways in which media
efface themselves in action - because these are the instances when their formative
influence is very likely to hit its peak.
66 Friedrich A. Kittler, introduction to Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford Univ.
Press, 1999 [German edition: 1986]), xxxix.
67 Sprenger, “A theory of media as a history of electricity”, 76.
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... Además, este aspecto estaría intrínsecamente ligado a otras áreas, tales como el diseño de interacciones, que a su vez deriva de las funciones potenciales para las que se configura o se quiere implementar en el dispositivo, por un lado, y a los medios técnicos disponibles para desarrollar esa interfaz. Además, Kaerlein (2012), plantea una reflexión en ese punto, sobre el aspecto de las interfaces de usuario que clasifica en dos grupos fundamentales: "naturales" y "tangibles", y que aplicados al área de la robótica y estudios de factores como el ya referido de la telepresencia, sería el resultado de una conexión continua entre entornos reales y entornos generados de manera artificial, planteando, además, la relación entre medios y la noción de inmediatez en el ámbito de la comunicación y de la relación con el entorno. ...
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In this work ,we focus ,on demonstrating, a real ,time communication interface which enhances text communication by detecting from real time typed text, the extracted emotions, and displaying on the screen appropriate facial expression images ,in real time. The displayed expressions are represented in terms of expressive ,images ,or sketches of ,the communicating ,persons. This interface makes ,use of a ,developed ,real time ,emotion ,extraction engine from text. The emotion extraction engine and extraction rules are discussed together with a description of the interface, its limits and future direction of such interface. The extracted emotions are mapped into displayed facial expressions. Such interface can be used ,as a ,platform ,for a number ,of future ,CMC experiments. The developed ,online communication ,interface brings together remotely located collaborating parties in a ,shared electronic space for their communication. In its current state the interface allows the participant to see at a glance,all other online participants and ,all those who ,are engaged ,in communications.,An important ,aspect of the ,interface is that for two users engaged in communication, the interface locally extracts emotional states from the content of typed ,textual sentences automatically. Subsequently it displays discrete expressions mapped,from extracted emotions to the remote screen of the other person. It also analyses/extracts the ,intensity/duration of ,the emotional
What is new about the so-called 'new media'? Enthusiasts often assume that digital media must break radically with the aesthetic and cultural traditions of their predecessors. However, new media and new genres are best understood by examining the ways in which they refashion or 'remediate' older forms. Computer graphics, virtual reality, and the World Wide Web define themselves by borrowing from and remediating television, film, photography and painting, as well as print. Virtual reality remediates film as well as perspective painting; digital photography remediates the analogue photograph; the World Wide Web refashions almost every previous visual and textual medium. Furthermore, older media can remediate newer ones. For example, television is making such extensive use of computer graphics that TV screens often look like pages of the web.