Facetop: Ghostly Videoconferencing

Facetop: Ghostly Videoconferencing

facetop_2.jpg imageFacetop is an experimental videoconferencing implementation that superimposes a ghost image of the person you’re talking to over an image of their desktop, allowing you to not only communicate with them via video but to share control of applications, watching them make changes as they go. Although the system is just software, essentially, because it uses extensions built into OSX it is expected to remain Mac-only until Microsoft launches Longhorn in a couple of years (although it’s likely that someone would be able code something similar in Windows if they wanted).

It might be important to point out that the people in these screen shots aren’t reflections — that’s the output of Facetop.

I’m sure that many of you have had poor experiences when participating to phone or video conferences. Now, a new video conferencing interface, named Facetop, improves the level of collaboration by blending transparent images of the user filmed by a video camera on the computer display. This results in a ‘ghost’ image of the user on the screen. When he points at something, “his video reflection appears to touch objects on the screen.” The computer scientists also developed a two-user version in which the ‘ghost’ images of the two users appear side by side. Both can alternatively take control of the desktop, again allowing a better collaboration. You can expect a Mac version within months and a Windows version in two years.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have devised a videoconferencing system that comes a step closer. Facetop superimposes transparent images of a computer’s desktop over video images of the user to allow the user to look at the video and desktop at the same time.

The video shows a ghostly mirror image of the user so that when he points, his video reflection appears to touch objects on the screen. The system tracks fingertip position in the video to allow the user to control the mouse pointer.

As it turns out, the human visual/brain system “seems to be quite good at paying attention to one and ignoring the other, depending on whether you want to see the user or the desktop information,” said David Stotts, an associate professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Facetop single user Here you can see the ‘ghostly’ reflection of the user blended with what he sees on his screen.
Dual-head Facetop for collaborative browsing The two-user version combines the video streams of remote users and presents the images side-by-side. This allows each person to control the desktop, watch the other person control the desktop, and see the other’s face.

These two images are extracted from a technical report named “Support for Distributed Pair Programming in the Transparent Video Facetop” (PDF format, 10 pages, 683 KB). This report is written in almost plain english and contains lots of pictures.

What kind of applications can we expect and is it an expensive one?

The system can be used for remote teaching, PowerPoint presentations, and as a basic PC interface with fingertip and pointing mouse control, said Stotts.

The system is relatively inexpensive to implement, said Stotts. “All we need is a $100 FireWire camera, a Macintosh and the Internet,” he said. The system’s software controls the transparency effect and the fingertip tracking.

So when will we see such a system and what are the next steps?

A Macintosh version of FaceTop could be implemented within a few months, and a PC version within two years, according to Stotts. The PC version would have to wait for the next major version of the Windows operating system, which will have the needed technical infrastructure, he said.

The researchers are working on a multi-person version of the system, are performing studies of how well the system works for collaborative programming, and are adapting a version that can be used with wide, very high quality displays.

Sources: Kimberly Patch, Technology Research News, June 30/July 7, 2004; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website

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