Japan’s Augmented Reality Teleconference Room (video)

NTT's t-Room uses augmented reality to put everyone in the same virtual space.

Get ready for teleconferencing in the round. NTT, the world’s second largest telecomm, has developed a new video room that allows users to share an overlapping virtual environment. Dubbed the t-Room, NTT’s next generation conferencing solution takes real time video of your friends and displays them on tall window-like screens surrounding you. Your image, in turn, is shown in a window in your friend’s t-Room. When you overlap in the same window you can see the other person ‘behind you’ in the screen. It’s a sort of shared augmented reality. As each person moves, the window they are displayed in changes as well. This gives the t-Room a sense of a three-dimensional space. Multiple users in multiple locations can participate in the same conversation, a background image can be projected behind the users, and documents or other files can displayed in one of the windows. Everything can be recorded for later playback in case someone shows up late. Watch the t-Room put a new twist on teleconferencing in the videos below.

We’ve seen how businesses are shifting funds from travel to video conferencing. The traditional teleconference room generally has screens only along one wall, giving users the feeling of talking along a long table that extends into the remote location. NTT’s t-Room is a more dynamic and interactive space, letting users move around and share input on the same files at the same time. As far as teleconferencing rooms go, adding an augmented reality feel is a nice improvement.

In the first video below you’ll notice that users seem to have a fairly intuitive sense of each other’s position. The second video (only in Japanese, though the English version is available here) gives a step by step look at the system’s capabilities. The use of multiple layers (background, people, files) seems to be a great tool for giving killer presentation. The final video is a demo of Google Earth in the panaromic space. Pretty cool looking.

Of course, as neat as the t-Room may be I’m not sure this kind of video conferencing is the long term solution that businesses will want. In the first place, there’s no mobility. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to step into a boardroom every time you talk to associates in a remote location. Instead, telepresence robots can be used to bring the associate to you and thereby allow for impromptu meetings and casual conversations. We’ve discussed the difficulty with selling telerobotics, but I still think a mobile physical presence is probably going to make more sense in many offices than a dedicated teleconferencing room. Then there’s price. There’s no word yet on costs or availability for the t-Room, but I doubt it will be cheaper than free. Skype and Google are going to dominate the low-end of video conferencing, and for many businesses, that level of communication is likely to work just fine.

Where then might the t-Room really shine? In very specialized expert applications, like telemedicine. For years NTT has been developing an all optical fiber network in Japan that will allow for super high bandwidth connections. By the end of the year they’re projected to have more than 30 million users. NTT’s network will allow for low latency on video conference calls making them more reliable even in cheaper systems. That sort of reliability matches up well with telemedicine applications. Each t-Room could be like a room at the doctor’s office, only the doctor can be commuting in from anywhere in the country (or world, eventually). Likewise multiple specialists could interact with the same patient at the same time. There are likely to be similar cases for engineering and other expert dependent scenarios.

But maybe I’m grasping at straws because I like the technology. The truth is that I’m really not sure if video conferencing solutions like the t-Room have any long term viability. It’s great to have a shared augmented reality space, but why not take the plunge and go full VR? Do we really need to have a dedicated room for conferencing when we’ll all have 3D webcams, video goggles, or some new human computer interface to work with? I like the t-Room, I really want to play around in one, but I don’t know if I’d invest in one for business. We’ll have to wait until NTT starts aggressively marketing the technology before we know if Japan and the rest of the world agree.

[image credit: NTT]

[source: NTT, Hirata et al (PDF)]

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