Videoconferencing with realism

HALO video conferencing 

John Batelle has visited HP and used their Halo videoconferencing lab, which looks pretty impressive. The hard part in that studio is not getting big screens and seeing the people talk to you, but to set up the cameras so that everybody there can see everyone else in the eye, i.e., that if the guy to the far right of the screens in the picture is looking at the woman to the far left, it looks to him and her as if they are looking at each other.

Video conferencing is one of those technologies that you wonder why never take off big-time, until you start using it yourself and begin to understand that the barriers to adoption are rather high. There are so many small details that you have to get used to, such as the fact that if the person you are talking to is not looking you in the eyes, that is not because he or she is shifty, but because they are responding to your picture. If you want to look honest and interested, you better learn to look into the camera rather than at the person you are talking to. Of course, then you can’t judge their facial expressions. Add latency, and you have a potential for very stilted and formal conversation until people get used to it.

I learned to use videoconferencing from a master: Doug Neal, research fellow with CSC and one of the world’s experts on this technology. Back when I worked for CSC we hade videoconferencing equipment at home and did a lot of meetings, sometimes with as many as 10 destinations (with the screen split in 9 and your own picture disabled, this worked fine.) We even established a system of signalling for the floor by waving, which broke down when my 5 year old daughter came into my office, sat in my lap and waved to all the people on the screen.

One effect of doing a lot of videoconferencing was that when you came out of your office and talked to regular people again, their immediate response to your talking to them was a bit startling…