France Telecom's Magic Telepresence Wall
A senior technologist at DreamWorks turned me on to this telepresence R&D project from France Telecom. The "Magic Wall" is described as "a very high speed video-conference system which eradicates the notion of distance between interlocutors, giving the perfect illusion of being in the presence of people who are physically far away." The website for France Telecom R&D can be found Here. Here are some excerpts from their description of the project:
The system works by establishing a bilateral liaison between two distinct sites, allowing for natural, continuous communication between people no matter what physical distance separates them. Interlocutors from different sites can speak to each other face-to-face via the telepresence wall, hear each other as if they were standing side by side, even have the impression of being able to reach out and touch the other person.
By placing yourself in front of an image wall you can see and hear, in both real size and real time, what's happening on the other side of the wall, hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away; reciprocally, you can be seen and heard as easily by others, without ever having the impression of being filmed or seeing a filmed image. The image regenerates on the wall, in real scale, the image of persons and provides the illusion of real proximity because users are closer to their interlocutors at 1.20 meters. All conditions are brought together here in order to create natural exchange possibilities.
The system was tested in the France Telecom R & D centre, firstly between the sites at Issy-les-Moulineaux and Lannion in Britanny, then between the sites as Issy-les-Moulineaux and Rennes. In each centre, a telepresence wall was strategically placed in a corridor where there's a steady flow of personnel traffic. Throughout the day, colleagues working in Lannion or Paris, 1,500 people at each site, could run into each other; simply say hello, meet for a coffee break or organize a work meeting. All this with panoramic view as the telepresence wall occupies at least four metres in width.
In each centre, a telepresence wall has been strategically placed in a corridor where there is steady flow of personnel traffic. Throughout the day, colleagues working in Lannion or Paris can run into each other; simply say hello, meet for a coffee break or organize a work meeting. All this with panoramic view as the telepresence wall occupies at least four metres in width.
This 'communication tunnel' carries no access restraints. It's permanently open and available for use by anyone, it allows for meetings of up to 20 people at the same time conversing together or separately in the same room. Contrary to the videoconferencing as it exists today, communication via the telepresence wall doesn't require a meeting room reservation, equipment set up (remote control, camera.) or phone call.
A Flash Animation on the project can be seen by clicking on the image above or Here.
How Does It Work?
At each site, there are 3 video modules and 3 audio modules. Each camera is used in long range telescopic mode and is situated at a theoretic distance of 7.5 metres which is reflected three times by high optic quality mirrors. This ingenious placement of mirrors is intended to get rid of the 'off-kilter' effect inherent in all video conference systems (interlocutors' focus angle is always slightly off); and guarantees a perfect synchronisation between sound and image with an interactivity speed below 200 micro-seconds.
The intelligence of this system relies on video conference software, on the IP network, eConf, developed by the France Telecom R&D laboratory. Regarding the elements which constitute the Telepresence wall, they are exclusively standardised: no specific material development was necessary. An essential benefit to reduce costs and facilitate maintenance and modfications.
Apart from the conception of the terminal itself, several technical innovations deserve a special mention. Among these, the sonar spatialisation of the sound space which caters to the rather original sound recording requirements of the telepresence wall. Thanks to a specific acoustic antenna, the different sound sources perceived by the user are attributed to the precise source - like at the cinema, but in real time, which reinforces the sensation of proximity to the interlocutor.
Each terminal is comprised of 144 echo paths which must be suppressed. Managing the acoustic echo necessitated the development of a new technique. The time difference between video and sound is negligible, lip movement is synchronised and the natural aspect of the exchange is reinforced thanks to a high speed I.P. network.
Most of this information is fairly dated (vintage 2002-2004). I have a request in to France Telecom R&D to get an update on if they are planning on commercializing the wall or if they have any other telepresence offerings on the roadmap. One interesting note: The France Telecom R&D website indicates the project has filed over 20 patents related to the technology. Please let me know if anyone is interested in digging into this as a consulting engagement. If anyone has any additional information on the patent base or the France Telecom roadmap please e-mail me.
Here are a couple of links to very interesting presentations by Giles Privat of France Telecom R&D on the future of ubiquitous networks and "ambient communication" that I found along the way.