Making your presence felt in a video
As more and more people become familiar with video conferencing as a way of avoiding travelling to meetings, we are also becoming increasingly aware of its shortcomings, writes Martin Langham of Bloor Research.
Unless the connection is of a very high quality, we get a pixelated and jittery picture of the other participants who seem to be as mentally remote as they are physically. Video conferencing problems are worse when you are the only person not physically present in the meeting. However vibrant and dominating your personality you often feel you are just a spectator.
A couple of companies have come up with ways of improving the "presence" of people joining a meeting remotely with solutions that seem to have more in common with Star Trek than with conventional video conferencing.
The first of these, Teleportec, lets people appear in a remote location live and life-sized within an apparent 3D environment. Duffie White invented this unique technology and founded Teleportec in Manchester in 1999.
When using Teleportec, the presenter can appear seated or standing. The remote background is removed with a reverse chroma key so the presenter appears to be in the room. This adds to the feeling of actual presence and reduces the processing load on the codec enabling a quicker refresh rate with less flicker.
The presenter sees a large video display of the audience with the same aspect ratio and the same line of sight as if they were in the same room. The presenter can communicate directly with an audience member by making eye contact and gesturing in their direction. The Teleportec Conference System is not confined to just one presenter. It can support larger workspaces and project three to five people around a conference table.
Hewlett-Packard's approach to solving the "presence" problem is a little more direct. They have created a Mutually Immersive Mobile Telepresence system called eTravel, a surrrogate that does the travelling for you. eTravel is a mobile cart that can go anywhere a wheelchair can. It has microphones and cameras to give its operator a 360-degree view of the environment. Four flat-panel displays on the cart facing the points of the compass give a 360-degree view of the operator's head.
The operator guides the cart with a joystick using the view from its cameras. The 360-degree view and the surround sound from the microphones enable the operator to feel as if they were really there and there is no ignoring the cart when it sits down at a meeting. Like Teleportec, eTravel not only allows eye contact but also preserves gaze. The audience can tell when the operator is looking at his notes or looking at the clock so eTravel offers an approximation of a total immersion environment. Hewlett-Packard has paid close attention to preserving video colours and making sure that the image is life-sized to increase the sense of reality.
Perhaps it will be some time before we stumble over our managing director walking the corridors remotely or have them beam down, but these two products show how video conferencing may develop to capture and transmit faithfully all those aspects of our personality that we need in order to participate fully in a remote meeting.