Being there, even when you're not

by Esther Ng
05:55 AM Jan 27, 2011

SINGAPORE – Imagine walking into a Starbucks outlet here and being able to chat with customers or a friend at an outlet in Seattle through a wall-sized display, as if you were sitting just across from them.

They appear as three-dimensional as they would be if they were in the Singapore outlet. The only thing you cannot do is shake hands with them.

It may sound like stuff straight out of the movies, except that virtual communication can be commercially available in as soon as five years, according to some scientists. And Singapore will now have a firm role to help make this a reality.

Yesterday, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill) announced the setting up of a $23-million research facility here that will develop technology called BeingThere.

This technology gives the illusion that people from afar are in the same common space and creates a feeling of “natural interaction” and being there.

Thirty-two scientists from the three universities will work together at the BeingThere Centre to change the way people communicate – using interactive real-time 3-D communication known as telepresence and telecollaboration – the same way change came with the telephone or email.

There will be four prototypes of telepresence systems.

For instance, if you are too busy to attend a meeting you could send an “autonomous Avatar”. “This virtual human will be able to recognise the real participants in the meeting, register what is being said and report to the absentee after the meeting,” said NTU’s Institute for Media Innovation director Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann.

Besides the “autonomous Avatar” and room-based telepresence systems, the scientists will be working on a roving display that brings a 3-D representation of a person in a distant location to a place that can be controlled by both users.

In other words, like a hologram in a glass panel. The display is semi-transparent and will give the illusion of the other person being present in a room, laboratory or hospital.

The fourth project will, literally, make the film Avatar a reality by seeking to create a mobile robotic mannequin that acts as a remotely located “avatar”, which can freely navigate a distant environment and takes on the appearance and gestures of its far-away human host.

This technology could improve communication, reduce the carbon footprint, circumvent travel delays such as extreme weather conditions that ground aeroplanes and speed up decision-making, said NTU provost Bertil Andersson.

He added that telepresence has “immense potential” for the healthcare sector – for doctors and professionals to respond faster and treat patients accurately from a distance.

Of the four prototypes, roving hologram displays are “closest” to being commercialised, said UNC-Chapel Hill’s Professor Henry Fuchs.

ETH Zurich’s Professor Markus Gross added: “There are optical LEDs, new generations of displays in research labs of large manufacturers like Samsung and Panasonic, and five years down the road, these displays will become ubiquitous.”

In the next 10 years, telepresence is expected to become a multi-billion-dollar market as broadband networks and superfast computer chips are developed to transmit and process intensive streams of digital information.

What is telepresence?
by Esther Ng
Telepresence is a set of interactive technologies that allows real-time 3-D communication, giving users the feeling they are present at another location and creating the effect that they are.

This is done through geometric modelling, high-definition 3-D video and audio capture as well as display technologies and robotics to simulate a face-to-face encounter.

Applications for telepresence include: New avenues for distance teaching and learning; closer communication between family members living in different parts of the world; virtual mobility for the disabled; greater work interactivity in multinational companies with multiple offices; a reduction in business travel; and a smaller carbon footprint.

Author: Gilbert Tan TS

IT expert with more than 20 years experience in Apple, Andriod and Windows PC. Interests include hardware and software, Internet and multimedia. An experienced Real Estate agent, Insurance agent, and a Futures trader.

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