Institute unveils 3-D videoconferencing prototype

Rather than using holography, the videoconferencing display relies on a digital technique for achieving 3-D effects.

The Institute for Creative Technologies unveiled a prototype 3-D videoconferencing system reminiscent of Princess Leia’s flickering “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you're my only hope” message at the Army Science Conference in Orlando, Fla., last week.

The University of Southern California lab focuses on developing practical applications of advanced graphics, gaming and virtual reality technologies. It was established in 1999 with funding from the Army.

Researchers say 3-D videoconferencing could eventually allow a “just like being there” experience, with full-body images and realistic eye contact between participants at different locations. Their first attempt comes in the form of a flickering black-and-white image of a floating head within a glass case, which gives a realistic impression of depth as you walk around it. The image was produced live by cameras trained on the face of a man sitting just behind a black curtain with his face illuminated by a strobe light and a computerized system producing the 3-D model of his face. The lighting projects patterns onto the face to help the software better detect depth and texture.

Paul Debevec, a researcher at the institute, said another version of that face-modeling technology has been used in movies such as “Spider-Man” to paint the features and expressions of an actor onto the face of a digitally animated figure. In those applications, the face modeling is more detailed and displayed in color, but it’s not done in real time.

Rather than using holography, the videoconferencing display relies on a digital technique for achieving 3-D effects. It has the advantage of not requiring the viewer to wear special gear, such as glasses, Debevec said. The institute used a video projector capable of sending 4,320 frames per second. The image is projected onto a spinning contraption that has two reflective brushed aluminum surfaces. By projecting a different image at each angle of rotation, the video translates the images into the standard video rate of 30 frames per second for each angle of view. Although it doesn’t yet measure up to R2-D2’s projection system, it shows the technology’s potential.

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