Seeing is believing

A system that will allow participants in virtual conferences to express and interpret non-verbal communication is being developed by an academic/industry consortium.

A system that will allow participants in virtual conferences to express and interpret non-verbal communication is being developed by an academic/industry consortium, led by SalfordUniversity‘s Centre for Virtual Environments.

Much subtle conscious and subconscious communication during social interaction is provided by eye-gaze. But an ability to see a person’s eyes and the direction in which they are looking is not currently supported by video screen technology.

The universities of Salford, Reading and UCL, with help from psychologists from Roehampton University aim to build the world’s first tele-collaboration system that supports realistic two and three- way communicational eye-gaze without restricting the gaze direction of participants. Industry partners include SGI (Silicon Graphics), Visual Acuity, Electrosonic and Avanti Communications.

The resulting system will integrate eye-tracking technologies into Immersive Projection Technology (IPT) displays, and develop the software necessary to build a consistent collaborative virtual environment where each participant can see the other and accurately track their eye-gaze.

Global market

In this, a number of users based in different locations could come together in a virtual environment to walk around a model of, for instance, an aircraft engine, and point out features such as sections of pipe needing assessment or repair.

An increase in distributed team working – where employees are simultaneously engaged at a number of sites – has been driven by the demands of an increasing global market.

However, this has also led to an increase in international travel by workers, affecting the environment by increasing carbon emissions and also decreasing productivity while staff are absent from their normal location.

To reduce the need to travel, firms have turned to video and teleconferencing, helped by the development of highly-sophisticated computer-supported co-operative work (CSCW) systems.

But in many cases there is still no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. Scientists have looked into the reasons why some meetings are still seen as unavoidable to develop technologies that can further reduce their number.

One criticism of current visual communications systems is that they do not seem natural.

‘Technologies have removed some of the need for travel, but there are still things that communications cannot do,’ said Prof David Roberts, Salford Research Centre’s director. ‘During videoconferencing you need to be able to gauge people’s emotions to build trust and also to see what people are looking at. eye-gaze is used for this In the real world.’

Eye-gaze is the most well studied form of non-verbal communication. Though it is possible to gain some idea of what the other person is looking at, the constraints of using 2D imaging equipment such as video mean this is not clear.

Modern video-based systems can maintain eye-gaze in a limited form if the user is willing to look directly at a camera. However, this is difficult for a long period.

Illusion of reality

Over the past six years the participating universities have led the field in creating the technology to link CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) devices, which provide the illusion of reality by projecting stereo images on the walls and floor of a room-sized cube. Users enter this, and several people can be projected inside simultaneously, meaning those involved can walk around both the contents of the cube and each other.

‘It is rather like the holodeck on Star Trek. Videoconferencing allows you to look into another person’s space, but this will allow you to walk around in it,’ said Roberts. ‘It will be the first system to support eye-gaze without losing the ability for movement.’

The Salford team has already created a prototype system of the eye-gaze technology and have now to install this in a CAVE. The project will run for two years from October and is being funded by a 207,000 EPSRC grant.

A working system is to be built during the first year, while the second year will see this being studied and analysed.

Once the system is complete it will be evaluated by comparing it to AccessGrid technology. This provides advanced video conferencing on large wall displays, but cannot support communicational eye-gaze between moving participants, despite its realistic representation.

The team aims to establish what conditions are necessary and sufficient to support eye-gaze in a telecommunication system. It also plans to discover when eye-gaze is important and identify situations where it is critical for successful collaboration over a distance.