From the telepresence solutions of companies like Cisco and Polycom to inexpensive desktop videoconferencing apps from providers such as Skype and Tinychat, there are now video communication products available to suit every need and budget. However, even though the quality of video communication has greatly improved, it still cannot match the feeling of proximity generated by real, face-to-face conversation.
Telecom giant Alcatel Lucent’s research and development arm Bell Labs is hoping to replicate the feeling of in-person interaction with a fascinating concept it calls Immersive Communications. It differs from existing video products by using “mixed reality,” using cloud-based processing to insert the video feeds of real people into customizable artificial environments, and may offer some insight into what video communications may look like in the near future, as this promotional video shows:
Immersive Communications uses cloud-based video processing to take the video feeds from each user’s camera and remove the backgrounds — using facial tracking and other technologies to obviate the green screen background normally required in traditional chroma key applications — and then inserts that processed video into a virtual world.
This mixed reality environment means that, for example, instead of having a series of separate windows for multiparty video calls, all of the participants can be naturally brought together into a virtual space — perhaps seated around an artificial boardroom table. It also means that documents and other digital elements (whiteboards, for example) can be brought into the virtual space for collaboration, and even manipulated using gestural control. Immersive Communications is perhaps similar to using virtual environments such as Second Life for conducting meetings, but, crucially, instead of making use of unrealistic avatars, the system uses video to give users an impression of natural “face-to-face” communications.
While the promotional video certainly looks exciting, with its Minority Report-style gesture control, Bell Labs thinks that the Immersive Communications concept has practical application, and addresses several shortcomings with the current crop of video chat offerings:
- Better user experience. Most current video chat applications take too many steps to get up and running and initiate a call. Immersive communications encourages spontaneous, intuitive connections from any device.
- Minimal client hardware requirements. Unlike expensive telepresence systems, Immersive Communications doesn’t have elaborate hardware or infrastructure requirements; all the video processing is done in the cloud. It will use thin clients (Flash-based browser apps, native apps for devices that don’t support Flash, and likely HTML5 web apps in the future), which means that it can be easily used by remote workers, and can also be accessed on mobile devices.
- Natural communication. Traditional multiparty video chat applications generally present each person in a separate window. This is unnatural, and can become confusing, especially as the number of participants increases. Placing the participants into an artificial environment allows for much more natural communication.
- Privacy protection. Automatic background extraction protects the privacy of participants.
In addition to the obvious uses for Immersive Communications in the enterprise, Bell Labs also sees many other potential applications for the concept, such as in remote learning, gaming and social media.
Immersive Communications has no definitive launch date yet. One stumbling block to commercial release could be the server requirements. Having the heavy lifting of the video processing done in the cloud is necessary if the concept is to work on multiple platforms, including mobile devices, but even though Bell Labs says it has developed a highly efficient virtualized GPU, real-time background extraction and processing video on a commercial scale would require considerable server resource, particularly if Bell Labs’ vision of a product that could be used as part of social networking tools were to be realized. (If you’re interested in the cloud computing and infrastructure technologies that support projects like Immersive Communications, you should really check out our Structure conference later this month).
According to Alcatel Lucent’s Marketing Director Thomas Kallstenius, early feedback on the concept has been good, however, and the company is currently undergoing usability trials to see what aspects of it should be brought to market. So while the first Immersive Communications product may not end up exactly as depicted in the promo video (gesture control is intriguing, but may not be all that usable, useful or relevant in many applications, for example), it’s likely that we will see a commercial product based on this concept soon.