Providing virtual, face-to-face communication has been the technology industry's unspoken challenge for the last decade. From Microsoft’s Skype, to Google’s Hangouts, to Cisco’s virtual conference rooms, to Apple’s FaceTime, the potential of enabling people who are 1000 miles away to have a conversation in the flesh is one of the most challenging, profitable, and inevitable experiences in technology. But as of now, our conversations are trapped in boxes. They're crystal clear video streams that inherently feel far away because they're still presented behind the rectangular screens of phones and laptops.
But a new project by Microsoft Research called Room2Room breaks us free of display constraints. Building off of the company's holodeck-like RoomAlive demo from 2014, Room2Room can film someone talking to you in their living room, and beam them into yours.
The technology uses Kinect cameras to acquire a 3-D model of someone’s figure. Then it uses an off-the-shelf projector to place that figure into your environment. It’s just a 2-D projection (that looks like a lot like a talking pancake from the side), but because RoomAlive uses parallax images—images that move with your perspective—the figure will look 3-D to whomever is speaking to it face-to-face.
What’s particularly neat about Room2Room is how intimately these holographic people enter your home. Thanks to parallax tricks, the person you're talking to can actually appear to "sit" on your furniture, making the virtual hang-out even more realistic. The system melts the interface of communication away, making Room2Room a far cry from talking to your TV, laptop, or this hilarious teleconferencing hologram from the show Silicon Valley.
And as MIT Technology Review reports, there’s a measurable benefit to this more natural level of communication. When challenging people to co-assemble a block puzzle, with one person giving instructions and the other piecing it together, it took subjects nine minutes over Skype and four minutes in person. Room2Room was just about in the middle, at seven minutes.
Yet despite its incredible demos, RoomAlive feels like the sort of deep research project that will never come to market—especially as companies like Oculus sell us on the merits of virtual reality. Even in 10 years its components, like high resolution projectors, will still be relatively bulky and expensive. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Kinect—the 3-D body tracking technology used by RoomAlive—has failed to catch on after two generations of the Xbox gaming console, forcing Microsoft to sell its latest Xbox One without the Kinect standard. So as cool as it is in the lab, RoomAlive in your home would probably be an impossible sell.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time. Since Microsoft is also developing Hololens augmented reality glasses that are capable of putting holograms anywhere in your vision without any extra hardware installed in your environment, it’s easy to imagine the UI lessons the company is learning with RoomAlive making their way into wearable computing products.
But either way, make sure you pick up your living room before Grandma calls. Just in case.
[via MIT Technology Review]