Research and development
of tele-immersion--the simulation
of a common environment
for multiple communicators who are, in fact, in different locations--has proceeded rapidly since the process was first described here in early 2000.
It was May 9, 2000, when Jaron Lanier (often described as “the father of virtual reality”) and his team demonstrated tele-immersion's feasibility by bringing together three disparate locations and participants in a “virtual” three-dimensional office-of-tomorrow. Speed and the overall quality of the images transmitted have improved greatly since then.
The most significant addition to the concept, however, came from researchers at Brown University, led by Andries van Dam, in October of 2000. A miniature office interior, about two feet wide, was placed upon a virtual desktop and manipulated, three-dimensionally, collaboratively, in real-time.
Faster processors and an enormous increase in bandwidth have allowed scientists to proceed with practical tele-immersion in the following (greatly-simplified) manner:
An array of cameras is used to view people and their surroundings from different angles. These cameras can be hidden, mounted in the ceiling, or mounted behind tiny perforations in the screen the user is viewing
The scene is illuminated by imperceptibly structured light. The light looks “normal,” but is in fact made up of brief flickering patterns that help the computers make sense of subtle differences in imagery.
Each camera’s set of images at a given moment is sorted into subsets of trios of images that overlap.
From each trio of images, a “disparity map” is calculated, which reflects the amount of variation among the images at all points. The disparities are analyzed and combined into a “bas relief” depth map of the scene.
All the depth maps are then combined into a single viewpoint-independent sculptural model of the scene at a particular moment.
At this time, final stereoscopic images are polarized and the viewer must wear glasses in order to perceive three-dimensionality. In the future “autostereoscopic” displays will channel images to each eye separately, and glasses will not be needed.
Jaron Lanier writes in the April, 2001 Scientific American:
“Roughly speaking, tele-immersion is about 100 times too expensive to compete with other communications techniques right now and needs more polishing besides. My best guess is that it will be good enough and cheap enough for limited introduction in approximately five years and for widespread use in around 10 years.”
But when it arrives, tele-immersion promises to once again change the way we do business
and seek pleasure
. Engineers will collaborate over thousands of miles on machines and structures that do not even exist
in reality. Archeologists
will be “virtually” present at the moment of important new discoveries. Some even predict that tele-immersion will take the place of air travel in the not-that-distant future.
New art forms will evolve, as will new problems. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict how tele-immersion might devolve on its way to ubiquity. Jaron Lanier writes:
“I am often asked if it is frightening to work on new technologies that are likely to have a profound impact on society without being able to know what that impact will be. My answer is that because tele-immersion is fundamentally a tool to help people connect better, the question is really about human nature. I believe that communications technologies increase the opportunities for empathy and thus for moral behavior. Consequently, I am optimistic that whatever role tele-immersion ultimately takes on, it will mostly be for the good.”
Tele-immersion Team Members
- University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill:
Henry Fuchs, Herman Towles, Greg Welch, Wei-Chao Chen, Ruigang Yang, Sang-Uok Kum, Andrew Nashel, Srihari Sukumaron
- University of Pennsylvania:
Ruzena Bajcsy, Kostas Danilidis, Jane Mulligan, Ibrahim Volkan Isler
- Brown University:
Andries van Dam, Loring Holden, Robert C. Zeleznik
- Advanced Networks and Services:
Jaron Lanier, Amela Sadagic
Scientific American, Volume 284, Number 4, April 2001