[FoRK] [>Htech] wired: cheap video conferencing with pointable transparent interfaces (fwd from alito@organicrobot.com)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Jul 9 10:04:20 PDT 2004

----- Forwarded message from Alejandro Dubrovsky <alito at organicrobot.com> -----

From: Alejandro Dubrovsky <alito at organicrobot.com>
Date: Sat, 10 Jul 2004 03:21:22 +1000
To: transhumantech <transhumantech at yahoogroups.com>
Subject: [>Htech] wired: cheap video conferencing with pointable transparent
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Reply-To: transhumantech at yahoogroups.com

Transparent Desktop Opens Doors

By Leander Kahney

Story location:

02:00 AM Jul. 09, 2004 PT

Collaborating with co-workers in the same office is painful enough, but
it's nigh impossible over a network.

For a couple of decades, researchers have tried to blend shared
workspaces -- systems that allow two or more people to work on the same
document -- with Internet video-conferencing systems, with little

Now researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have
designed a new system that cleverly blends a video-conference feed with
a transparent image of a computer desktop into one full-screen window.

Called Facetop, the system simultaneously transmits a video feed of
users along with a shared, transparent image of the desktop. It allows
two colleagues to work on the same document, Web page or graphic, while
communicating face to face.

The system also tracks the position of the users' fingertips, which can
control a cursor. As well as operating the shared desktop -- opening and
closing files or selecting text, for instance -- the collaborators can
use natural pointing gestures to communicate ideas about the document.

Developed by David Stotts, an associate professor of computer science,
and graduate student Jason Smith, Facetop was conceived for
collaborative tasks like programming or editing text. But the
researchers say it has obvious uses in other areas such as medical
imaging or remote teaching.

"So far, from the feedback we've received, it works fantastically," said
Smith. "It's a very natural interaction. You can see the facial
expressions and all the nuances of face-to-face communication."

"It's spectacular technology," said Robert Gotwals, associate director
of Chapel Hill's Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, who saw a
demonstration of an early version. "I've done lots of video-conferencing
work. This is pretty cutting edge. It's a fast-moving field and the
stuff David (Stotts) is doing is pretty cool."

The system can also be used for delivering lectures or PowerPoint
presentations: The speaker is projected in the background of the
document allowing her to point out bullet points or important passages.
According to Smith, users easily switch attention between the subject
and the desktop. 

"The brain is really good at picking out what part of the screen the
person is interested in," said Smith. "It's like being in a room full of
conversations but having no trouble paying attention to only one.?
People adapt to the system really naturally."

Facetop may also be used to as an alternative to the mouse, for
controlling a machine simply by pointing with a finger. 

The system is implemented in Mac OS X and is made possible largely by
the system's Quartz rendering engine, which can make any part of the
interface transparent. Thanks to Quartz, a quick prototype was whipped
up in about 45 minutes, Smith said. 

A PC version will likely be delayed until the release of Longhorn, the
next major version of Windows, due in 2006, which will include a similar
graphics subsystem. 

The system is fairly inexpensive; it has been implemented on a pair of
Apple PowerBooks and two $100 FireWire cameras. So far it has been
tested only on Ethernet networks and not the Internet, though the
researchers say there's no reason it shouldn?t work just fine. They are
also trying to hook it to Apple's iChat instant-message/video-
conferencing software and other similar systems.

Facetop was initially developed for "pair programming," an increasingly
popular form of collaborative coding that pairs programmers in teams of
two: one to program, the other to suggest and correct. Stotts said
programmers normally sit next to each other, and he has been interested
for some time to see whether they could collaborate over the Internet. 

According to Stotts, pair programming -- sometimes called extreme
programming -- is fast and effective and is becoming increasingly
popular for small projects. 

The idea for Facetop occurred to Stotts and Smith accidentally. Instead
of a computer monitor, Stotts projects his computer desktop onto his
office wall. He was playing with a new FireWire video camera, projecting
his face on the wall, when Smith came in to discuss his Ph.D. thesis.

Smith stood in front of Stott's projected video feed, discussing and
pointing at different items on the desktop when the penny dropped -- it
looked like a good interface for video-conference collaboration. Stotts
said the idea now seems so natural they are surprised no one has
attempted it before. 

"In this world of 6 billion people, it's hard to imagine that no one
else had the same idea," Stotts said.

Don Smith, a research professor in the same department who is not
involved in the project, said research into collaborative work
environments has a long history, but no one had hit on such an elegant

"I'm very impressed by it," he said. "It's the most novel approach to
this idea of shared workspaces and video conferencing I've seen for a
long time."

Stotts said the university holds patents on the technology and will
likely license it to software publishers. He said a couple of firms have
already expressed interest in incorporating it into their products, but
declined to say who.

Stotts and Smith are working on a multi-user version of the system,
which will likely project several video feeds on a wall or require a
wide-screen monitor. They are also conducting studies of how the system
performs for collaborative programming.

End of story

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