Written on July 4, 1997, the day of the historical Mars Pathfinder landing, and published here on July 5, 1997, this article is a reflection on the cultural meaning of telepresence, as experienced simultaneously by millions of people via televison (and on the Web). The article was also published in the July '97 edition of Leonardo Electronic Almanac (on the Web) and in Leonardo, Vol. 31, N. 1, 1998, pp. 1-2.


Eduardo Kac

Today, July 4, 1997, is an exciting day for art. Although the art of telepresence has been consistently explored since the late 1980s, today the landing of the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft brought telepresence to the masses. This historic event rekindled the drama of distance and the cultural meaning of telepresence on the imagination of the general public, reverting the numbing and soothing effect of habitual televised entertainment and newscasting. In the terrestrial afternoon, Pathfinder sent the first images from the surface of Mars ever transmitted live on television. The first images to arrive from the Ares Vallis area were small grayscale pictures and, on television at least, the resolution was rather low. The very first broadcast images appeared on a computer screen, inside a small window which floated among many other windows on the desktop. What was on the air seemed to indicate that a cameraman pointed his camera to the computer monitor, eagerly awaiting and immediately retransmitting the first picture as it appeared on NASA's computer screen. The CNN announcer was ecstatic and, contrary to journalism protocol, clearly expressed her own excitement with what she was seeing for the first time herself.

First image returned by Mars Pathfinder.

While perhaps unimpressive in the eyes of the visually literate public, accostumed to flashy digital special effects on televison and in the movies, these stills are profoundly significant, overcoming real space (119 million miles from Earth) with near real-time contiguousness. Their meaning does not arise from cinematic entertainment, but from the raised awareness of the Universe we have gained by being collectively telepresent on the Martian surface. These pictures were not representations of science fiction scenarios, but a de facto window into another world entirely. The feeling of remote presence was intense. "We're there!", shouted NASA mission control personnel.

As with the Moon landing before, what is most remarkable about the Pathfinder mission is not the technological tour de force, but the fact that millions of people watched simultaneously the first images as they were broadcast (and soon uploaded to NASA's Web site). It took about 10 minutes for each encoded image to arrive. It took the NASA team about 30 minutes to process the data stream into color images. As the first color images were unveiled, again, live on CNN, approximately one hour after arrival, I was struck with the realization that what I was seeing at that very moment, in the privacy of my home, was exactly what the surface of the fourth rock near the Sun looked like one hour ago! Twenty one years ago Viking gave us our first glimpses of the Red Planet. Today, through this near real-time experience, Pathfinder gave us a sense of being telepresent on Mars. While it took the spacecraft seven month to travel to Mars, the near-instantaneity -- given the relative distance between the planets -- of the telecommand, remote response, and image-retrieval, touched us with a renewed sense of proximity beyond the material limits of physical space.

Mars as first seen live on televison

This is the first time ever that a fully mobile and wireless telerobot (the rover Sojourner) is sent to explore another planet, a true landmark for telepresence and the history of the space program. The pictures of the landing site taken by Pathfinder will be used to determine the exploratory path of the rover Sojourner, which is 2 feet by 1.5 feet wide and 1 foot tall. Once deployed, the rover will navigate the environment and negotiate the terrain on its own, at a speed of two feet a minute. A unique kind of human-machine interaction takes place in this mission. The cognitive process of a human being is remotely projected on a distant robot, which in turn has autonomy to sense the surroundings and make decisions that are in its best interest (for example, to prevent an accidental fall from a cliff).

While the aesthetic dimension of this experience will go unnoticed by most directly involved in the project and telespectators alike, it is precisely this aspect of the media event I witnessed today that I find particularly significant. Some of the aesthetic features unique to this telepresence event are the relativity of space and time (seven months to get there, ten minutes to transmit a picture); the nature of the human-machine interface (combination of teleoperation and autonomy); remote space negotiation and navigation (unpredictability of the terrain, feeling of remote presence); teleoperation (at-a-distance control of a robot); capture, transmission, reception, processing and unveiling of the images; the instantness of the pictures; the realization of all this live on television (integration between the one-to-one experience of remote control with the public space of televison); and the impact of this telepresence event on the collective consciousness. All this, I suggest, has paramount aesthetic value -- aesthetic, not artistic.

The investigation of the artistic dimension of telepresence, however, is a fascinating challenge that must be met. It is clear that the aesthetic dimension of this historic event introduces telepresence to the population at large, pointing to a future when personal telepresence will be an integral part of our daily lives. As our presence on the Red Planet increases via telerobots, and eventualy with humans, one can easily foresee Webcams enabling us to look at the Martian surface on the Internet with the same ease and regularity as today we see the skyline of several North-American cities. Other forms of personal telepresence will be developed in the future in many segments of society. For example, through a telerobotic hand surgery might be performed remotely, or a document located in one city could have the original signature of an individual in another miles away. Artists working today can directly respond to an event of this magnitude by working with the very same means employed in the fantastic exploration of outer space: telepresence, remote operation and networking. No object can rival the experiential quality of today's event.

The very first images broadcast live on CNN were hard to discern or recognize as a landscape. In science as in art, what you can't recognize, you cognize. Awareness of the unfamiliar remote terrain, coupled with intermittent visual feedback, guided and will continue to guide the telexploration of the dry flood channel where the spacecraft landed. As Pathfinder deploys the small rover Sojourner on the inviting crimson terrain, it will be searching the Martian surface (and below) for signs of life, intelligent or not, present or past. I need no further evidence, however, because today I saw, telepresentially, clear signs of intelligent life on the surface of Mars: ours.

The rover Sojourner against the Martian background.

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