Where am I? When am I?
Someone pulled out a thread on the fabric of time and space. At least that’s how it feels to be associated with this expedition. While the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is operating in Indonesian waters, satellite and high-speed Internet pathways, AKA “telepresence”, enables shore-side scientist participation across the globe.
Telepresence provides for ship-to-shore communication in real-time both with video and audio. The ship broadcasts three live HD quality video feeds via satellite. Participants in the shore-side Exploration Command Centers (ECCs) can see these feeds, as well as anyone else on Internet 2. Shipboard technicians running the system can send video to shore from any of the 18 cameras on the ship and even several of the computer screens. Also critical is the intercom system which directly links everyone by voice. If I just press a button on the intercom unit in the Jakarta ECC and speak into the microphone, I can have a conversation with someone on the ship or someone in Seattle.
Over the last two months, we’ve learned many of the strengths and challenges associated with telepresence. One of the particularly exciting developments has been the adaptability of scientists to use complementary technology. At the very beginning of this expedition, all of the shore-side scientists were participating from the ECCs in Jakarta, Indonesia and Seattle, Washington. Since then, the team found ways to tap into the Internet 2 feeds from their universities to see the video. Add the final ingredient, a simple conference phone call in the Seattle ECC and suddenly scientists in Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the University of Victoria, British Columbia are ‘directly’ connected as well. Tim Shank, the Lead Shore-side scientist for Leg III, recently took it one step further. For at least a few days, Tim worked out of a hotel room in South Carolina by using screen sharing software to view the video feed at WHOI from his laptop. Though he could only ‘see’ one of the three feeds and at a reduced quality, it still shows the power of what is now possible.
One of the previously underestimated challenges is the difficulty of working across so many time zones. Trying to coordinate with people onboard, in Jakarta, the Pacific Northwest, and East Coast of the US is enough to drive someone crazy. Since local ship time is exactly 12-hrs ahead of the US Eastern time zone, it’s extremely difficult to even find a good time to talk. Onboard personnel, exhausted from a full day’s work, are ready to fall asleep when the US wakes up and email starts ‘flying’. Scientists back in the States are up into the wee hours of the morning for ROV dives and can only catch a brief respite before their day begins.
Besides all of the undersea ‘finds’ from this expedition, by the time this is over, I expect well also have a very well-documented telepresence version of ‘jet-lag’.
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