The VTC Future is NOW with InfoStrat
by Will Rourk
Communication is key to connecting with your clients and staff. The most effective methods of sharing information you need to impart to your clientele are highly dependent on an efficient means of communication employed in your office. Communications today do not need to be limited to conversation. Our communications now take place over networks with which computers communicate so that discourse can include information that computers are capable of handling. The technology that’s leading the way to enhancing your client connections is video tele-conferencing, or VTC. At its root level, VTC visually connects people together, and now that just about every mobile device and laptop produced today comes with a camera, visual communications are accessible from just about anywhere. But apart from good network connections and sheer convenience the bottom line with any network technology is how useful it can be for you.
Mere face-to-face communications may be a novel and efficient way to connect with your clients, but effective communications are more than just talk. Much of your discourse will include graphics and text, documents with which you and your client or staff would benefit from interaction during discussions. Some forward thinking folks at InfoStrat, a company devoted to developing strategies for information technologies, are researching the methods in which VTC sessions can enable participants to interact and even be immersed within informational data and media. The research team at InfoStrat is using Microsoft’s Kinect combined with multi-touch technologies integrated with in-house developed software to explore communications using easily accessible VTC utilities like Skype and Link to share and interact with information during conversational sessions.
If you’re not aware of the Microsoft Kinect, it is a consumer grade device that allows motion interaction with Microsoft’s Xbox gaming platform. Interaction is gesture based, which means you don’t use a mouse or trackpad or other navigation device. The Kinect sensor detects your movements and translates it to the movement of an object in an Xbox game. For example, in a soccer game you would actually kick your foot in the air to hit a “ball” in the game. Or you could point in a particular direction and an object would move in that direction in the game. You don’t hold a device in your hand or touch the screen of your computer or gaming screen. You merely make gestures in the air.
This mere consumer grade gaming add-on is not only revolutionizing the way in which we can play games, but how we can work with computer graphics and data. A freely available software development kit can be downloaded with lots of examples of how Kinect can connect with your information. Kinect can recognize the human body and transfer your movements to a digital character. It can recognize facial expressions and transfer them to a virtual mask. You can wave your hand across to flip pages in a slide show. And you don’t need an Xbox to use the Kinect directly with your computer.
Combine this new way of interacting with computer information with VTC technologies, and you have a powerful platform for communications. Research into tele-immersive collaboration for InfoStrat is being championed by Josh Wall, Director of the Advanced Technology Group. This kind of collaboration allows the sharing of computer files while visually connected during a VTC session. Not only do you see and hear the person at the other end, but you can access and work with data and media together in ways that only computer interaction methods allow in what Wall refers to as a “shared glass session.” This is when you are sharing the presentation media, whether it’s on a computer monitor, projection screen, multi-touch table or other technology that is present on either end of the VTC session.
As Wall says: “We’re not talking so much about devices, we’re talking about displaying content. We’re interacting with content. We have content, we have sensors, we have services that are providing the content.” Wall’s team has been exploring different ways in which VTC communicators share and interact with data. They are taking interaction to higher levels than just merely reading a text document or looking at a static image together. Their methods allow real-time editing and manipulation of text and graphics between VTC parties.
The InfoStrat team is dedicated to finding ways to communicate more effectively while overcoming levels of abstraction inherent in VTC communications. “With traditional VTC a level of distraction has been added. Like I’m pointing at a graphic with my cursor but my head’s over here. You see me saying something but my cursor is over there. There’s a disconnect. It’s not natural, it’s not like you see me standing in front of a map and I’m pointing at something on the map. We’re really trying to get at how we can immerse somebody in that, and make it better so that video teleconferencing is better than just face to face.”
In a demonstration of their technology, InfoStrat showed how participants in a long distance VTC session were able to look at and interact with map data of a wildfire scenario. On one end of the connection, the main office for the response team is able to provide real-time locations of a wildfire outbreak to teams in the field. The manager at the office is actually immersed in the image of a map that is visible to all communications participants, and he can point directly to where teams need to react the fastest.
InfoStrat is also exploring the sharing of 3D data and looking at how communicators can become immersed in a 3D model. Wall likens this kind of 3D online experience with the 2D map example above where “you could plant someone in the 3D model and they’re pointing to something inside the 3D model.” They are also looking at real time 3D point cloud capture to automatically produce 3D models of VTC participants for even tighter integration with 3D content. Research is currently being done with InfoStrat’s Point Streamer technology, which would allow spatial data capture on the fly. Wall foresees relevant use of this technology for architects to be able to “do live walkthroughs of people interacting in a space and go back and review in multiple viewpoints.” While it is still theoretically being developed, this technology could revolutionize communications in architecture and other related fields of design and planning.
InfoStrat uses varying levels of interaction for VTC participants to collaborate on data. Granular levels of interaction vary from coarse movements using the Kinect and gesture based movements, to touch screen interfaces and stylus for more precise interaction. InfoStrat is developing a platform for handling this granularity of interaction on a number of different presentation devices they call Converge 360. This system will handle collaborative teleconferencing on all computing platforms from mobile to desktop to allow for multi-site, multiple interaction scenarios.
Wall believes that as far as business communications go, “remote can be better and more productive because the tools are more immediate.” With InfoStrat’s interactive approach to sharing media via VTC sessions, the tools on your computer are inherent in the process and more accessible when communicating through the network. As phone conversations become a thing of the past, and digital tools abound for enhancing workflow, VTC communication methods are quickly becoming the affordable, efficient way to connect.
Will Rourk currently works for the University of Virginia’s Digital Media Lab.
Photos courtesy of InfoStrat.