In search of the Princess Leia effect
Holographic telepresence systems like those seen in 'Star Wars' are on their way.
"Put the camera down or you're not getting anything tonight," Tom Cruise's character Chief Anderton is told by his ex-wife, as he gazes nostalgically at a 3D hologram of her that he made when they were together.
It's the year 2054 and, the way Steven Spielberg sees the future in this scene from 'Minority Report', digital photos and 2D video clips are no longer used to store and play our personal multimedia files. The need for a flat display is gone, replaced by a 3D projection system, our loved ones suddenly walking into the room and staring us in the eyes. The sense of realism is such that Anderton feels he could touch his ex-wife.
The prediction appears to have been spot-on: we're getting this technology, and there's no need to wait until 2054 to experience it. In fact, all of the basic components - not only for holographic recording and reproduction but also for live, interactive holographic communications - have already been developed. And the first commercial systems are being readied for launch.
At the end of last year, three top executives from telecoms networking giant Cisco Systems 'convened' in Bangalore to give the world's first real-time holographic presentation. Only chief executive officer John Chambers was physically present, standing on stage in front of his Indian audience. His colleagues, Marthin de Beer, senior vice president of emerging technologies and Chuck Stucki, general manager of the telepresence business unit, were at Cisco's headquarters in San Jose, California.
Not that anyone in the audience noticed much of a difference, though. As soon as Chambers 'beamed up' de Beer and Stucki, their full, three-dimensional, life-size bodies appeared to join him on stage; only a minimal delay in their otherwise natural voices (and an ethereal appearance) giving away the fact they were really thousands of miles away.
"I can see you like you're right in front of me," Chambers told de Beer. "You can see each other as if we were playing poker."
He went on to suggest that the technology could help doctors communicate with remote patients without leaving their hospitals, and to bring corporate users together with remote colleagues, clients or providers, in such an immersive experience that there would be no need to travel for face-to-face meetings.
Telepresence on steroids
We have had such promises before. In 2006, HP and then Cisco made the same case for the end of business travel when they launched telepresence products.
Traditional videoconferencing had failed to live up to expectations, they argued. And they had the solution for it: a cocktail of high-definition video, spatial audio, life-size images, high-bandwidth links, designer furniture and even specially selected wall colours, that would elevate videoconferencing to a whole new level of immersion.
To a large degree, they were right. I had the chance to test one of the more than 240 telepresence rooms that Cisco has deployed at its offices in 110 cities around the world. From Cisco's newly installed TelePresence 3000 room in Buenos Aires, I interviewed Erica Schroeder, the company's director of marketing management for TelePresence, who was joining me from San Jose. Schroeder claims that - at a time when fuel prices are seemingly out of control, the global economy is cooling, and reducing your carbon footprint is paramount - Cisco and its telepresence clients are both saving millions of precious dollars and helping save our planet.
These rooms are not cheap to install and run. Each costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the overall experience is convincing enough to have the potential to slash a significant portion of today's corporate travel budgets.
Richard Norris, a UK-based practice consultant with US teleconferencing experts Wainhouse Research, agrees: "Telepresence technology was a significant step up from historical videoconferencing, which was poor. It's even a step up from the current breed of higher-end videoconferencing equipment."
The question is whether these early telepresence systems will evolve into holographic videoconferencing systems in the quest for ultra-realism.
"You can imagine an extension of today's technology into a realm that's not too far away," says Schroeder. "You can think about the telepresence on-stage experience - that 360-degree view of somebody being physically there - being easily applied to a meeting situation."
The term 'easily' seems an exaggeration when one looks closely at the effort Cisco had to put in to stage its Bangalore-San Jose holographic link last year. While the networking side of it didn't differ much from a typical telepresence call between two distant sites, generating the on-stage 3D hologram involved some significant logistics issues.
Dimensional Studios, a London-based company, supplied Cisco with the complex holographic projection system. Called Musion Eyeliner, it had, until that point, only been used to show pre-recorded 3D images of people, such as Prince Charles, or animated characters, such as virtual pop stars Gorillaz.
For the Cisco on-stage telepresence demonstration, the projector was fitted on top of a high truss framework mounted on the stage. Live HD images of the San Jose executives were shined from this ultra-bright projector down to a large screen placed between the stage and the audience, hidden below stage level.
The images were reflected off this screen to be displayed on a large sheet of transparent, invisible foil (called Eyeliner) that ran across the stage. Only then could the original 2D images be perceived as a 3D rendering of the remote participants, who appeared walking and talking naturally on-stage.
It worked. But one can only wonder how such a complex approach could be replicated in a typical business meeting room.
One company that claims to have met this challenge is Digital Video Enterprises. Based in Irvine, California, DVE is also initially targeting the emerging market for 3D telepresence in live events. But, unlike the Cisco/Dimensional Studios approach, the DVE Telepresence Stage product does away with the large truss and foil.
Instead, it uses a Christie Mirage 16K projector, from which the image is displayed on a proprietary, transparent direct projection screen measuring 2.13m × 3m. The choice of codec is open, although the company recommends 1080p, and, more specifically, the Hi-Vision 1080p codec.
"The idea is that you can go into a venue and, essentially, the whole system will fit into two road cases," says Jeff Machtig, co-founder of DVE. "The only bit of planning required is to have a quality-of-service line for the bandwidth.
"Sometimes we'll bring a second projector and project what appear to be 3D holograms floating on the screen next to the person on the stage. We call this augmented reality telepresence, and what we're doing is mixing the presenter with media," says Machtig.
The second projector allows for what is known as 'stereoscopic 3D'. The system also supports 'volumetric 3D' (the illusion of something that appears to be 3D but really is 2D), achieved using chromakey techniques.
Based on much of the technology DVE uses on its stage system, the vendor has now designed what will effectively be the world's first corporate telepresence rooms to support holographic videoconferencing.
Called the Tele-Immersion Room, it will replace the bank of multiple HD plasma screens used in most other telepresence vendors' systems with a large, reflective optic running from one side of the room to the other. Built into the table there's a 120in rear-projection screen. Each of the purpose-built rooms will accommodate up to eight people.
"The room provides the local people with the visual impression that the people they're talking to are no longer inside of a projection screen but literally sitting in the room with them, on the other side of the desk," says Machtig. "We did an industry showing of it at Telepresence World 2007 and we blew everybody away. It's something that really does replace travel; it does everything but handshakes."
Just as in the stage version, the Tele-Immersion Room will let users see 3D images of products floating in mid-air. A manufacturing company could then take 3D CAD files of a prototype product and share them with remote colleagues, suppliers or customers.
"One of the things we can do is to chroma key a virtual person staying next to a 3D stereoscopic image," Machtig says. "So you can have a live person walk into the 3D image and, on the other side of the display there are confidence monitors that allow a person to accurately point to various aspects of this 3D image in real time.
"Say that you are a general and you've got somebody presenting a battlefield scenario in 3D space (X, Y, Z). You could then point out satellite positions, ship or radar installations, fighter positions etc, and do all of this accurately inside the 3D model. It's the coolest thing you've ever seen in your life. And we're demonstrating this capability almost every day in Santa Ana, California."
Machtig gives another example of the way the 3D stereoscopic feature could be exploited by a carmaker: "If we were showing the wireframe of a car in one of our Immersion Rooms, the entire, 2.7m-long wireframe would literally sit on the boardroom table right in front of you.
"The reason some of these larger companies are drooling over this is because we're the only company in the world that can show a 3D image in a boardroom where you're not looking into a projection screen. This is truly the Princess Leia-type effect that Hollywood has trained us to believe is what 3D really is," he says.
The system is scheduled for commercial launch at the turn of the year. "The Immersion Room is finished; what's been holding us up has been the network," admits Machtig. "But we have recently signed agreements with Tier-1 carriers for bandwidth and we've got long-haul, short-haul and metro loops in the can now."
Smoke and mirrors
Does this mean Cisco and HP should be worried, then? Wainhouse Research's Norris certainly doesn't think so: "If you haven't seen holographic telepresence (or pseudo-holographic telepresence) before, it's massive on 'wow' factor; it's like nothing you've seen before. It truly is three-dimensional.
"But I think the challenge for the holographic version [of telepresence systems] is: what does it actually give over and above telepresence? There is a 'wow' factor, but what's the actual application that it's aimed at? I think there are applications, such as those DVE is targeting with its stage and podium products. Those are certainly niche applications, but I don't see that as mass deployment; I see that as fairly bespoke niche applications aimed at very small possible usage.
"For the large, Fortune-100 multinationals, I am sceptical of what the application is. [There's a risk] that it could possibly be perceived as 'smoke and mirrors' rather than as a real business application that gives you something which either high-definition videoconferencing or telepresence does not."
Machtig couldn't disagree more. Asked whether DVE has any companies interested in buying the 3D rooms, he replies: "We have a lot of them - dozens - that are already in the queue to get this. By the end of next year you're going to be surprised by how many companies have jumped on this."