Today I had one of those moments where several random experiences coalesced into a vision of virtual proportions, an epiphany of sorts about immersive virtual presence. I was sitting in the Cisco Executive Briefing Center in San Jose, California testing out their Cisco Telepresence system when this occurred.
The Cisco system uses large flat panel displays to realistically place remote meeting attendees around a real world table. The rooms and tables are all of the same color scheme, so the effect is quite convincing (see the picture above). Microphones are mounted in the table in front of each participant, with the sounds projected into each virtual meeting space spatially correct for the seating positions as they are displayed to each participant. Unless you have experienced this technology it’s difficult to understand just how realistic these meetings feel, right down to the tapping of fingers and occasional coughs of the participants.
The other day I was reading an interesting article in Scientific American Mind entitled ‘Touching Illusions‘. The article mentions the concept of ‘visual capture’, also known as the ‘ventrilloquist effect’. This concept simply states that given a strong visual cue combined with sound, the brain will associate the sound with the visual cue. When visual inputs conflict with other senses, vision tends to dominate. This effect can produce some very convincing illusions of perception.
Over the past 15 years I’ve participated in many video conferences. This technology continues to improve, and over the years all of the visual stutter and lag has been removed (back when this technology was new this stutter made some people motion sick). At my school district we have several Polycom conference room video conferencing units that we use in the Pacific Rim Exchange project with Kyoto, Japan. I’ve always felt that there was something missing in the video conferencing experience using this type of equipment. Until today, I never knew what that missing element was.
I now know that the missing element is size. When I am in a video conference the images of the other participants are usually tiled on a widescreen HDTV. In this format the meeting participants range in size from a few inches tall to maybe a foot in size. When I am running around in a virtual world like Second Life, those I am sharing the virtual space with are doll sized at best on my desktop monitor. Even in a virtual world like There.com, where the avatars lip synch and simulate body language, the realism is lost to the size of the avatars.
Over the break I had one of our computer labs open at our Technology Center. Students involved in the PacRimX project came in to work together, and to share building techniques they’ve picked up in their use of Second Life. We have a large projection screen in this lab. Inside of an hour one of the students asked to use the “big screen”. The students traded off using the teacher computer over the rest of the week to teach the others from the large screen. As educators using Second Life, this is already something we are very familiar with. Why does this technology have to be limited to instruction?
LCD projectors are now sub-$1,000 devices (many are now approaching the $500 price point). This is what we were paying for high end desktop monitors only a few years back. How much more immersive would Second Life be if we were interacting with life sized avatars? An LCD projector and a white wall is all that’s needed to make this a reality. We got a peek at this on the recent CSI:NY episode ‘Down the Rabbit Hole‘.
A short list of other requirements will be necessary before this technique can be fully exploited with Second Life. First, and most importantly, we need a way to lip synch our voices to our avatars. The spatial voice support is already there and quite effective with a good set of headphones. In the CSI:NY episode Gary Sinise appears to be using a 3Dconnexion Space Pilot to control his avatar. I purchased a Space Navigator and found that with the current drivers it’s only possible to control the Flycam function in Second Life, not your avatar’s movement. This is great for producing smooth flycam Machinima, but not yet usable for avatar movement as depicted on CSI:NY.
Until my personal experience today with the Cisco Telepresence system I had no idea of how important scale was in the total immersion of a virtual experience. The Cisco system as pictured above costs approximately $300,000 for both sides of the table (list price including furniture and installation). There is no reason this model could not be adapted to virtual learning environments in Second Life at a relatively inexpensive cost using off the shelf technologies.
If you want to get really excited about this, take a look at the Sanyo PLC-XL50 announced in Las Vegas this week at the Consumer Electronics Show. This new projector can project an 80-inch image from only 8 inches away from the wall. The price is currently cost prohibitive at over $3,000. But like all technologies, that price will fall over time with economies of scale.
Adding life sized scale to our virtual worlds can take this technology to the next level for education in the not too distant future. All we have to do is think outside of the monitor.
~ Stan Trevena / Quidit OflynnWritten by