I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.
Presence information has been a feature of the computing landscape since the late 1990s, when instant messaging first appeared. However, it has been uncharacteristically slow to evolve as a technology. Most presence solutions today are still restricted to whether someone is online or not. If they remember to set their status to busy or are on the phone, then you may have a slightly better picture of what they are doing. Now, the FX Palo Alto Laboratory owned by Fuji Xerox has developed myUnity, a presence system designed to give a much greater view into your colleagues' lives.
Designed for the Windows operating system and the Android smartphone, myUnity provides a panel, like a visual contact list, showing in detail what colleagues are doing. The system uses multiple information sources to construct a picture of colleagues' activities.
Thanks to assisted GPS and Wi-Fi triangulation, the system can deduce the location of a cellphone running the application. Video from a user's web cam can be used to sense what they are doing. The technology is sophisticated enough to tell whether there is a visitor in the room, for example.
Microsoft showed a similar research project in 2001, in which a web cam and microphone would attempt to sense what a user was doing. The technology even tried to look at a user's posture and expression to see if they were bored or actively engaged in a task.
How much could this technology assist in corporate collaboration? Initial research has shown that the number of face-to-face conversations increased when actively using the test product in an organisation. It stands to reason that if you can see someone is open to real-time communication, you might be more likely to place a telephone or video call than send an email.
There are of course some drawbacks to this technology. Some employees might feel threatened by having themselves so openly monitored. The application enables users to choose how much information they want to share, and they can also set restrictions for certain locations (such as at home).
If organisations use this responsibly, and give users complete control over what information they would like to share, technology like this could be a useful asset. It would be particularly exciting to see something like this more closely integrated into unified communications systems, so that instead of looking at a visual panel showing all of your colleagues, you could simply have information delivered about a particular colleague through your contacts system. Perhaps we are on the verge of a new generation of presence that could bring people closer together than ever.