All done with mirrors

A desktop videophone that offers real-time eye contact and broadcast quality pictures may put an end to the frustrations of videoconferences, reports Jon Excell

Videoconferencing, touted for years as a time-efficient and planet-friendly alternative to expensive business trips, can be an underwhelming and frustrating experience. Grainy pictures, awkward time delays and bandwidth problems have all conspired to make face-to-face meetings the preference for most companies.

And while there are exceptions, they tend to be expensive. For instance, Cisco Systems’ Telepresence ‘Virtual meeting’ system (The Engineer, November 2006) uses a suite of advanced technologies to create an ultra-realistic, high-definition impression of a face-to-face meeting. But costing almost $300,000 (£150,000), and requiring the refurbishment of an entire meeting room, it is only really an option for super-rich multinationals.

Spotting a gap for an affordable option, Dutch company Exovision has developed Eye Catcher, a £4,350 desktop videophone that offers real-time eye contact with broadcast-quality pictures.

During a demonstration at the office of London-based distributor GreenEyes, The Engineer used the system to talk to Exovision’s Steven van der Kaag in the Netherlands. As der Kaag chatted to the three people on The Engineer’s end of the line, glancing from one to the other as he fielded questions, the novelty factor quickly gave way to the natural sensation of a face-to-face conversation with meaningful eye contact. The nods, hand gestures and other non-verbal signals that are a critical part of human communication also quickly become a natural part of the meeting.

Unlike the larger non-eye contact systems, it is not necessary to refurbish a room dedicated to this conferencing system. It is discreet enough to switch on at any point of the day. It also works with all the other major video conferencing technology, so can be incorporated into existing infrastructure.

About the size of a desktop computer and monitor, the functional-looking device could perhaps do with an Apple-style makeover, but the technology that makes it tick is just the kind of elegantly simple idea of which Steve Jobs would be proud.

It is, said GreenEyes director John Merrell, ‘all done with mirrors’. The user looks at a mirror screen, which is positioned at an angle and shows a reflection of the main 18in display screen. A camera lies at eye-level directly behind the mirror, meaning the user is always looking directly at the person they are talking to. Although the system does not track eye movement, the near life-size image, high-quality sound and video combine to create a surprisingly realistic experience.

The most expensive component of the system is, said Merrell, the Codec — the compression, decompression technology responsible for synchronising voice and video, which travel separately over the internet. ‘This is a very heavy processing event in real time,’ he said. ‘It involves four dedicated processors that break up the packets, send them and reassemble them — that’s the hub of the machine.’

Although the first working product was launched about four years ago, Merrell said large-scale deployments of the system have been hindered by the high cost of the device and the fact that IP networks were not ready for it.

This is now changing. The cost was reduced, and is expected to continue to drop as economies of scale kick in and ongoing refinements make it cheaper to manufacture the system.

Perhaps the biggest boost for the system, said Merrell, has been the success of voice over internet systems (VOIP). ‘We’re finding that multi-service level network architectures are really being implemented now, largely driven by voice over IP, which allows for larger deployments of video over IP devices.’

He added that with travel and the environment moving in to the mainstream thinking of many organisations, the system has become doubly attractive, with companies such as ABN Amro, the European Space Agency and sections of the Dutch government all joining a growing list of satisfied customers.

‘We’re having a lot more success in persuading organisations to roll this thing out now,’ said Merrell.

In the UK, the biggest customer is Unilever, which has invested in 50 of the systems to be deployed worldwide.

Talking up the green credentials of the device, GreenEyes claims the technology has the potential to significantly improve the carbon footprint of businesses by reducing business travel, thought to be one of the biggest contributors to transport-related CO2 emissions.

Merrell claimed that since deploying the technology, Unilever has slashed its business travel, while another customer, green business charity Carbon Disclosure Project, is using the system as a permanently open window between its London and New York offices. ‘They just shout into it when they want to talk,’ said Merrell.

He added: ‘Being realistic it’s not an absolute replacement for business travel but it does cut down a lot of the need — it’s a great alternative not just to big international trips but also to shuttling around the country in your car.’

In the longer term, GreenEyes and Exovision are keen to explore other markets for the device.

Merrell even suggested that as economies of scale bear fruit and the price of the device drops there could be a lucrative home-user market for the device. He also confirmed that the firm is considering developing a slightly smaller version of the device.

‘We have been experimenting with different sized images in order to determine at what point the conversation you are having stops being lifelike,’ he said.