Immersive Communications: Putting the Human in the Interface

by Brian Boyko, Contributing Writer

Forbes Magazine posted on their blog last month an article by Elizabeth Woyke, entitled “The Business Case for Immersive Communications.”

If you’re not familiar with Immersive Communications, mainly the idea is to combine video conferencing with a user interface for accessing files, documents, animations, etc., perhaps by swiping a hand through the air in order to turn slides on a PowerPoint presentation, or start, stop, and pause a video presentation remotely to allow people to ask questions.

This kind of technology requires high-end cameras, or even multiple cameras arranged at different angles.  And yet – there are serious possibilities here, and the future is not as far off as one may believe.  However, there are a couple of restrictions that keep this dream from becoming a reality.

First, it seems to me highly unlikely that, like the Forbes articles alluded, one will just “pull over” and start giving a business presentation in any environment with immersive technology. I mean, it is possible, but we run into some real roadblocks.  For example, light.

A camera – even a high end one – requires light, and poor lighting produces poor video. Without sufficient light, the user interface for Immersive communications may not work well, or work at all.  (Of course, this is in addition to the poor “muddy” video quality of video streams in low light.) In a business situation, that can lead to some terrible faux pas – opening up the wrong document, deleting the important file, or simply not being able to access your presentation at all.

However, other than that, we already have most of the technologies to make Immersive Communications a reality (in controlled environments), but we need to put them together.  Microsoft’s video game peripheral, “Kinect,” for example, meets most of the requirements for the technology, though it’s not really designed to be a communications medium; merely an interface for full-body movement. There are other drawbacks, such as needing a large amount of floor space and a large enough TV to be seen from a distance, but if you’re looking for a proof of concept, there it is.  Other possibilities include a system similar to the Wii or Move, where you require a certain device to be present, and the computer tracks the device rather than your actual body movements.


Light saber battle in 3D video generated by one Kinect camera at each site

Already, hackers are doing what will take a while to become mainstream. Oliver Krevlos at UC Davis has already hacked together a way to get 3D video from the Kinect, as well as found a way to teleconference the two together.  Business applications will require a bit more fine tuning, but right now, he can fight in some really, really immersive lightsaber battles.

So, the trick is just to merge the technology we already have for video games with the technology we already have for video conferencing, and all of a sudden, we have a viable Immersive Communications solution for business.

That said, however, there’s a difference between a viable concept, and a business demand.  Certainly, we can do gesture interfaces for interacting with virtual objects, but the question is, will this be a comfortable, intuitive system for interacting with businesses?  Will it “feel” right?

In order to answer that question, we have to consider the precedents.  Ask any professional actor whether they would prefer to work with real people or against a chromakey screen, and they will tell you almost with certainty that being able to react to the environment itself is key.

You can tell the difference, certainly.  The Star Wars prequels (which suffered from many things, including bad writing and bad cinematography) also presented the actors with the challenge of having to say these lines mostly on green screens, in total vacuums.  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, in contrast, used Green Screen, but also relied where they could on their actors – Andy Serkis wasn’t just the voice of Gollum – he acted alongside Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, wearing a white suit.  Yes, LOTR had tons of green screen, but they also used “giant” miniatures, and the natural environment as much as possible.

Now, judging acting is always subjective… but, c’mon.

The point I’m trying to make here is that it may just be that while the technology has the potential to help communication of ideas, it’s important to consider that we don’t end up making the technology uncomfortable to use or awkward, or just plain “weird.”  The interface has to match the medium, and it has to be intuitive; People shouldn’t feel like they’re learning something new by using it.  Only when it makes communication clearer will we find business adoption.  Nobody wants to spend more money to communicate fewer ideas.  That is the stumbling block that keeps this from being business viable right now (i.e., December 2010).  We’ve mastered the technologies regarding the interface part of the human interface.  It’s the human that will require the most research and development moving forward.

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