New Dimension Added to Meetings

12/03/08
USC researchers unveil 3-D videoconferencing in Florida. Inventors see potential applications in entertainment and communications.
By Carl Marziali
Andrew Jones, a member of the ICT team, appears remotely during a Dec. 1 demonstration of the institute's 3-D videoconferencing technology.

Photo/Courtesy of ICT
Introducing 3-D videoconferencing, a technology so powerful, one can only hope it never falls into the hands of Dilbert’s evil pointy-haired boss.

The prototype, developed at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, allows one to attend a meeting as a talking head floating in space.

Unlike CNN’s hologram on election night, or the famous hologram effects in the Star Wars films, this three-dimensional image can be seen in person and does not require special glasses. The remote attendee can converse freely with live participants.

And the pointy-haired boss may never miss another meeting.

For those who would use technology for good, the inventors hope the low-cost system will save time, money and carbon footprints while promising a better interaction between live and remote participants than currently available through speakerphone or a television feed.

The inventors also see applications for video gaming, amusement parks and other sectors of the entertainment industry.

Researchers demonstrated the 3-D videoconferencing system Dec. 1 at the Army Science Conference in Orlando, Fla.

Prior to the conference, John Parmentola, the Army’s director for research and laboratory management, predicted: “For the first time that I know of in the world, we'll be able to actually project a three-dimensional image from one part of the Army Science Conference through a high bandwidth line to another part of the Army Science Conference, where you'll be able to walk around that image.”

His claim proved accurate. Visitors to the institute's exhibit chatted freely with a virtual 3-D image while the real person sat out of sight and earshot.

The remote participant followed the meeting on television. Cameras mounted under the television screen captured the participant’s face, which was recreated as a 3-D image on a barely visible surface spinning in front of visitors.

The demo capped two years of work led by Paul Debevec, a research associate professor at the institute well known for his advances in face scanning and photorealistic visual effects.

Already familiar with Debevec’s work, Parmentola suggested applying face scanning technology to 3-D videoconferencing.

“It was a great suggestion because it challenged us to advance two of our lab's research vectors and bring them together,” Debevec said.

Searching for a way to rebuild a face in thin air, Debevec had his key insight: High-speed projection onto a rapidly turning mirror could create the illusion of a solid object floating in space, for any observer standing anywhere in the room.

“You not only see the object correctly from your point of view, but you can see other people all around the display reacting to it exactly the same way that you would expect them to if it were actually there, if it were just as real to them as it is to you,” Debevec said.

“And we really hadn’t seen that happen with existing 3-D display technologies.”

Debevec and his team plan to go further, believing they can create a full-size image capable of eye contact and sensitive to the direction of sound.

“This is a crowded field, but nobody can do what we can do right now. We’ve built a genuinely new 3-D display experience, and that’s given us a base to continue to make contributions in this area,” Debevec said.

Parmentola, who oversees all Army research, says the effort is worth it.

“If we spent the amount of money we have on travel on this, we would be so far advanced in this area that it might not eliminate travel, but it would enable people to participate in meetings with their actual images realistic in real time interacting with live humans in that context,” Parmentola said.

“On the battlefield there would be plenty of applications for this type of thing, between command centers, for example,” he added.

A demonstration and explanation of 3-D videoconferencing can be found at http://gl.ict.usc.edu/Research/3DTeleconferencing/

The other members of Debevec’s team are Andrew Jones, Magnus Lang, Xueming Yu, Ian McDowall of Fakespace Labs and Mark Bolas, who also is on the faculty at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The U.S. Army sponsored the research.