BERKELEY, Calif. -- The big blue balloon floats down the hall, approaches students munching their lunch, and asks: "How's it going?"
They look up, startled, at what could become the hottest -- and certainly cutest -- tool in an emerging technology: "telepresence."
Ever wished that you could attend a board meeting or conference without getting out of your chair? Perhaps you need a talking blimp like the one invented by two scientists at the University of California at Berkeley. A computer science graduate student, Eric Paulos, attached a micro-TV camera, computer chips, a speaker and small propellers to a blue helium balloon, shaped roughly like a 5-foot-long pillow. He developed the balloon and several of its ancestors under the guidance of Professor John Canny, now on sabbatical at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using a computer, Paulos sits in a computer science lab at the Berkeley campus and remotely guides the balloon down hallways and through rooms. On the computer screen, he watches a live color TV image of the balloon's progress. On the screen he sees students and professors stroll past. Some look surprised. Others wave at the balloon, which is an increasingly familiar sight in an increasingly offbeat place: Soda Hall, just off Hearst and Euclid at the Berkeley campus. In Soda Hall, tomorrow's Steve Wozniaks imagine, design and occasionally build the fantastic technologies of tomorrow. There, a short walk from coffee shops where political radicals once mused about the perils of technology, the balloon -- Space Browser, Paulos calls it -- has become something akin to a techno- mascot: a hard-not-to-love blue blob that hums down hallways, a few feet above the ground. …