TeleAbsence Hiroshi Ishii
People die twice.
First, when they die.
Then when they are forgotten.
Rokusuke Ei (1933-2016)
Communication with those no longer with us through tangible memories
Presence and Absence are fundamental states of being for mortal humans; being present or close, and being absent, far away, or lost [Ishii 2020]. We propose TeleAbsence as a counter concept to Telepresence. The purpose of Telepresence is to connect people who are alive. TeleAbsence aims to create illusionary communication channels with those no longer with us to soothe the pain of bereavement. TeleAbsence is designed around tangible objects, such as old typewriters, telephones, brushes, and pianos that were once touched and marked by the hand of a loved one.
Due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019, Telepresence has become the lifeline for our everyday life and work, connecting people separated spatially and temporally. Telepresence technologies such as video conferencing and groupware support digital communication and collaboration across both space and time, combining real-time and asynchronous communication tools. However, the emotional distance that leads to social isolation and loneliness is much harder to overcome as the tangibility of human interaction is missing.
The infusion of tangibility will enable the reinvention of Telepresence. inTouch physically embodies the concept of “ghostly telepresence” by making users aware of the other person’s existence through the sense of touch, without representing the person through pixels (absence of body) [Brave 1998]. By seeing, hearing, and feeling a physical object moves on its own in our hands, we imagine a person’s physical presence even though they are physically absent. This concept of “ghostly telepresence” that came out of inTouch inspired us to extend the distance to an ∞ (infinite) dimension so that we can connect with people we have lost [Wind Phone 2021].
Telepresence is for connecting people who are separated but still reachable via technological means. The main premise of this modality is that a message’s recipient is alive and conscious in order to respond to a sender’s message. TeleAbsence, our speculative design project, addresses the issue of the vast, emotional distance caused by bereavement and the inability to receive a response from a loved one.
Without any direct or explicit response, how can we create the illusion so that a sender would feel that they are communicating and interacting with a departed loved one? Can such illusionary communication soothe their grief? These are the fundamental questions for our TeleAbsence project.
Saudade, a Portuguese term, is a deep emotional state, a nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for something or someone one cares for or loves [Amoruso 2018, Wikipedia 2021]. Saudade is deeply rooted in the "presence of absence."
TeleAbsence’s ultimate goal is to soothe the pain of "Saudade". TeleAbsence will provide an illusionary experience of communication and interaction with people who are no longer with us. TeleAbsence offers a sense of “ghostly telepresence” and communion with lost ones through tangible artifacts and abstract ambient media. The key component of TeleAbsence is the use of “tangibles” as mediators that can be touched and leave marks and traces on a variety of artifacts. MirrorFugue [Xiao 2013] exemplifies this concept by capturing an inter-generational duet through the tangible medium of a piano.