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The Virtual Pastor: Telepresence in Modern Worship

True to life holograms in worship? Pastors leading services in multiple facilities at the same time? Projected images that can make eye-contact?

Before you dismiss the idea of a Pastor sporting a cinnamon roll hairdo à la Princess Leia, consider the emerging advances in Telepresence technology. Welcome to the era of beaming a physical presence of a person to remote locations- not just a person’s 2D image. Protocol droids aside, Telepresence could be the next revolution in communication technology. And it’s coming to a church near you.

Telepresence is a means of projecting the physical presence of a person into a remote environment. It has already been put to use in various markets, including corporate conferencing and medical applications.

The inherent benefit of Telepresence is the potential “feel” of the medium, versus the standard method of projecting an image of someone for say, a conferencing solution. It can certainly be a lot more intimate to sense that you are in the presence of a real person, compared to an image of someone’s face on a screen. It can aid in fostering connection and intimacy, which is integral for modern houses of worship. Plus, it’s just cool.

Telepresence could potentially be the next evolution in video as far as the physical medium is concerned. It may in fact end up being the start of what we can imagine teleportation will be like.

But, why should smaller houses of worship care? Especially those facilities that are nowhere close to considering multi-site solutions? Because your church may not be small forever. Remember that when CD players first came out, they were expensive, and now you can pick one up for less than fifty bucks.

As the technology continues to develop, and prices for components and bandwidth start coming down to more affordable levels, we may see the use of Telepresence make its way into more houses of worship as an augmentation of the already prominent “one Pastor, multiple campus” type scenarios. Smaller churches should definitely be keeping an eye on the prices for the necessary technology. If the pattern continues to follow the course it’s on, then a Telepresence solution for a church could become as common as say, a microphone for the Pastor.

This article is meant to give an aerial view of some of the cornerstones to the concept of Telepresence. To do this, we spoke with Steve McNelly, co-founder and CEO of Digital Video Enterprises (DVE), creators and patent owners for the DVE Telepresence Podium, the DVE Telepresence Stage, and other related products.

As developments in Telepresence continue, TFWM will be reporting on the intricacies in the individual technologies that enable it to happen. Then we’ll start looking at some scenarios in which houses of worship have already set solutions in place that are using forms of Telepresence as a means to reach out to their communities and the rest of the world.

The Emergence of Telepresence
Now that we’ve gotten over the amazement of conducting a video discussion in real-time with someone who is three thousand miles away, the next step is to make it seem as if the conversation is happening with a flesh-and blood person standing right in front of you.

Imagine in addition to the congregation watching a video screen to catch the facial expressions of a Pastor conducting a sermon in a remote facility, they are also watching a very real-looking 3D image of the Pastor, as if he or she were right there at the podium.

As distant as it seemed back in the late seventies to picture holographic technology being the norm as seen in Star Wars, (the projected image of Princess Leia by the droid R2-D2 is referenced consistently when referring to Telepresence) we are starting to see evidence of this reality taking shape. However, the road to achieving effective Telepresence is indeed a long one. There are major technical considerations to make it happen, and from there it’s a major jump to ensuring that it is done well.

Even so, several industries are in the process of making Telepresence part of their programming or outreach. What we know of as the future of video conferencing is starting to take hold in real-world applications. For instance, you may remember CNN’s Jessica Yellin “beaming in” to confer with Wolf Blitzer during last year’s presidential election coverage.

Fundamentally, this was Telepresence. They even mentioned some of the tech infrastructure needed to do it. Yellin indicated that there were 35 high definition cameras surrounding her to capture her full 360 degree image. All of this content then needed to be delivered to another location, to be projected appropriately onto a surface that allowed the image to appear present to the audience.

Of course, it isn’t all that simple. Yellin’s hologram was not actually in front of Blitzer in the studio, because to do this the studio would have to have been outfitted with a myriad of additional components. High-powered video projectors, as well as a means by which to display the holographic image would need to be put in place. Yellin’s 3D image was superimposed onto the video feed and interestingly enough, the image was degraded in quality to appear more like the projected Princess Leia hologram. This was so that viewers could be more comfortable with the image, and also to call attention to the medium, seeing as if Yellin ended up looking too real, the effect may have been lost.

In a house of worship setup, where intimacy and interaction with the congregation is paramount, there would not be a need to degrade the image of the Pastor. If anything, you would want it to look undeniably real. And if you had 35 high definition cameras ringing the Pastor to make this effect possible, someone may be a little upset if the image came out looking fuzzy.
“Every venue needs to be analyzed to what is appropriate.” explains Steve McNelly of Digital Video Enterprises (DVE). “Telepresence is not putting a big shot of a head of a person up on a screen. Telepresence is about trying to simulate the reality so that the person appears to be there in the room with you.”

The technology and the concept have understandable limitations. You still need the subject to be shot by high quality cameras to capture the entirety of a person’s image. Then you need to deliver that data to where it needs to go. You’ll also need to have a way to project that data- it can’t just materialize on thin air.

“If the Pastor’s podium is out in the audience – you know, like a church in the round – you’d have a real problem. It’s still a projected image. We’re not talking about Princess Leia, where it’s 360 degrees. That technology just doesn’t exist, except in Hollywood in the movies, and that’s all post-production stuff.”

In order for us to get more of an understanding, we need to take a look at some of the attributes of Telepresence and what it takes to make it work properly.

Keeping it real- logistical considerations
How do you set up a Telepresence solution so that it doesn’t just look like a big head appearing above the congregation on a video screen?

Telepresence deals a lot with atmospheric considerations. In many ways, the concept for the experience has been refined on the basis of being considerably more affective than a video conference. Even though you can conduct a conversation and interact with someone via a video conferencing solution, it still feels like you’re looking at someone’s image on a screen. Telepresence takes this a step far beyond that by making it seem that you are actually in the room with the person that is being projected.

“A sense of eye-contact is important, so camera placement is critical in these applications.” states McNelly. “If you have [an image of] a giant head or a little teeny person, the illusion will be broken – the effect of Telepresence is lost to a large degree.”

Mapping out points of reference pertaining to environment and a person’s location is referred to as cultural proxemics.

“If I’m in a meeting room, I would be sitting four, five or six feet away from you, not 15 feet away, that wouldn’t be natural.” explains McNelly, “But in a congregation, [the Pastor] would be up on stage and you would be out in the audience, and that’s natural. So the distance of the person in the image to the people viewing needs to be appropriate to what people would be seeing in a real-life scenario.”

In order for the effect to appear “real”, for example in a conferencing environment where the projected person is meant to be at a table with others, you would have to calculate the appropriate distance from the subject to the viewers. For a house of worship, the image of a Pastor behind a pulpit would have to look realistic.

We’re still dealing with a projected image. It would not be realistic, for example, if the image behind the podium was one of a giant floating head. It would need to look like the upper part of a human body, like a person actually standing behind a podium. As such, the distance from camera to subject in the facility where the capture is taking place would have to be appropriate. Along with a fair amount of technical infrastructure to make Telepresence seem real, there’s also a fair amount of science and math.

“In an ideal scenario,” McNelly suggests, “you visit a satellite church or a venue on a church campus. The Pastor is live coming from one facility and appears at the remote location, and get this – you see them at a podium or walking around on stage, but simultaneously, you see a tight shot of them up on the screens as you would in the main sanctuary. It is amazingly compelling.”

It should also be noted here however, what is required of the Pastor to pull off this effect. Proper planning is integral. “The issue of the podium is that the Pastor, when you’re videotaping them, needs to be oriented to match that space. If he starts walking off left or right, he’ll leave the screen area.”

That brings up the consideration for what is called background negation. This is basically making sure that you don’t catch anything on camera behind the Pastor that will be displayed at the remote venue and throw off the effect.
“In the local area, at the site where the Pastor is, if he had a whole bunch of choir chairs behind him, the camera shooting his image will capture all the chairs. So when you play that back in another venue, when you see him walking around, that background might not match the background at the other venue. Background negation is when you video tape the Pastor against some type of extremely neutral background, like a black set, which gives you the ability to place the Pastor’s image in a variety of different ways creatively in the other venues.”

Future Planning
The planning process for a house of worship that would want to start using Telepresence as a form of outreach would be major. The main facility, where the footage is being captured, would have to be outfitted so that cultural proxemics and background negation were taken into account, especially if the Pastor was conducting a service in front of a live congregation at the same time. The remote facilities would have to be set up to handle to projection of the image onto a podium screen or stage, and if there were live people sharing that stage- say a band- they would have to be mindful of the screen’s location so as not to throw off the effect.

You would also have to have the right technology to make the signal flow work. The camera (or cameras), the codec (compressor/decompressor that allows large chunks of data transfer), the pipeline between facilities, the heavy-duty projectors, and then the appropriate screen materials… all of this would have to be in place to make it happen.

Even though the task of rounding up the technical materials seems daunting, there are already some facilities that are working on variations of Telepresence for worship. In subsequent articles, we will be looking at these facilities and studying the technology they have in place. We’ll also be discussing what the impetus is for these facilities to use a Telepresence solution, even though the answer could be obvious: affect. Affect in this case being the compelling power that technology can have on a congregation who is searching for an immersive spiritual experience.

Houses of worship are already primed and ready to be one of the viable markets for this technology to be used. Remote campuses, satellite facilities, video venues; these terms are already part of the worship community vernacular.

At this point Telepresence is still a very new phenomenon, and the cost for the necessary setup is still out of reach for many. However given the course that technology usually travels, solutions like this may be more realistic than most people realize.

You may have to tell your Pastor to consider the cinnamon roll hairdo after all.

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