Researchers solve that pesky eye-contact problem with video calls

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Let’s face it: video chatting with someone is awkward. While we’ve all gotten used to darting our eyes between the camera and the screen, so there’s no real way to make eye contact with the person you’re talking with. But instead of cheating it out of politeness, a team of researchers has found a low-cost way to bring eye-contact into video chatting — using a Microsoft Kinect.

Claudia Kuster, a doctoral student at the Computer Graphics Laboratory ETH Zurich, has coordinated a team of researchers to help solve the eye-contact problem without creating an expensive and over-the-top rig. The Kinect offers crucial facial recognition technology, which can determine the orientation of a person’s face and tilts the image to adjust for the angle. So, even if you’re looking down at the screen or up at the camera, the Kinect will recognize a shift and adapt accordingly.

While this is nifty in itself, tilting an image wholesale can adjust the entire depth of an image, making it look warped and unnatural when done incorrectly. Kuster’s team shows off its true cleverness in the software meant to handle the adjusted images, which actually works in two parts. First, the “foreground image” (re: the person in the shot) is separated from the background and then altered. The new image is then grafted back on to the regular background, effectively tilting the face without throwing the entire image.

Kuster’s team utilizes 66 different feature points on a person’s face to seamlessly analyze and blend the two images in real time, and is able to do so on a regular computer with no hiccups. The software also adjusts for lighting, colors, and can even identify two faces in a single frame — coping with many different faces and hairstyles.

It’s easy to see how this product could change video calling, especially in its capacity to make it all feel more personal. Kuster is now working on a way to make her software compatible with traditional cameras instead of the Kinect, allowing for even easier usage across laptop and mobile devices. With the end goal of a Skype plug-in, it may not be long before the limits of technology can’t impede anyone from making real eye contact.

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