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Beyond telepresence: Bell Labs envisages 'immersive meetings'

Today telepresence is the acme of collaboration at a distance, but it still falls well short of the interaction that takes place when people are together. Bell Labs is looking at how to create truly 'immersive meetings'.

Jan Bouwen, head of the visual communications of Bell Labs, based in Antwerp, said that one of the biggest limitations of multiparty teleconference was 'turn-taking'.

"In a discussion two people often start to talk at the same time and what usually happens is that there is a consensus: the person most people look at will continue to talk. But in telepresence that is impossible: everybody looks at the screen and the all look back. So how do you give that kind of feedback. It is something we are looking at."

A more ambitious project attempts to replicate in a virtual environment the ad hoc interactions that occur between people working under the same roof, and the often serendipitous exchanges of information that occur as a result.

"This is the thing most people forget when they create collaboration solutions," Bouwen told ExchangeDaily. "It is the things that happen when we meet by accident in corridors, when you overhear things. If you are a home worker and you don't have these interactions you rapidly feel very isolated."

Bouwen's research team has been looking at how technology can substitute. "We did some experiments more than a year ago with what we call 'warm teams': where the members know each other, trust each other and they work together day to-day," he said.

"We developed applications that capture where you are - behind your desk or in the coffee room, what you are doing - using Word emailing, or reading a paper; what topic on working on, which you can deduce from the files people are working on.

"Then we created a 3D virtual environment and avatars, but these avatars are not controlled by the people themselves: they are controlled by software. So for example, if I am reading a paper and I don't want to disturbed, the software will move my avatar to a library environment, but if am emailing it moves me to the public space to indicate I am available for conversations.

"We then showed this information continuously on a secondary screen and we showed the topics people were working on with some icons over their heads, and the audio connection was kept open between people in the same environment, or those working on the same topic. And if someone started a conversation, after 15 seconds it would switch to video between those two people."

He said the results were being analysed to see how the technology might be evolved into a usable product. "However there are a lot of challenges. It might work for one team, but today people are members of several teams and we haven't solved how to manage that."

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