Microsoft has been interested in real-time communication over the Internet since the 1990s; they’ve created or purchased a host of cutting-edge technologies in that sector. They’re also a pioneer in 3D image capture and body recognition, with the Kinect being one of the first viable consumer-level products that boasts the ability to track a user’s body in 3D space.
It’s not too shocking, then, that – as per a recent job listing – Microsoft intends to bring these technologies together. The listing describes a holographic 3D “avatar” that can look around, speak with people, and provide someone on the other side of the world with real presence at a remote meeting. It’s a new dimension in teleconferencing – instead of a disconnected face and voice on a screen, there’s a person in the room that you can interact with like anyone else who’s there.
This sounds like the sort of thing you’d hear discussed by some starry-eyed futurist, but Microsoft absolutely has the technology to make this a reality. It appears to be a development of a research system called Viewport that was mentioned in a paper last year. Using an array of color and infrared cameras, the Viewport system would capture a 3D image of a scene and map that into a conference environment. The Viewport paper was largely a curiosity, and stopped short of actually blending its virtual 3D conference with a real one – but it’s an obvious stepping stone to the current project, and on a mathematical level something that would have faced very similar problems. Using a refined version of the system outlined in this paper, the data for a telepresence system like this is easy enough to collect. The hard part is the 3D projection itself.
But holographic displays – while certainly not practical for the mass market at the current moment – do exist in some rudimentary form. For example, consider this autostereoscopic light field display designed at the University of Southern California’s Graphics Lab. This is, undeniably, primitive – the rotating mirror system is mechanically complex and thus prone to malfunction, while color is rudimentary and the resolution is relatively low. However, this system does project a 3D image into apparently empty space; at the most basic level, it does what Microsoft needs for this telepresence project. With their considerable resources, they could easily design something along the same principles that would be viable for mass production.
It’s important not to expect too much – you’re not going to be able to get up and take a stroll through a boardroom in Shanghai. Your doppelganger will be confined to a seat; there’s still a monitor, just one of a different type than the conventional screens. But the technology already exists for an incredibly basic implementation of this concept; Microsoft’s mission is one of refinement.
In the long term, this technology could have huge implications for teleconferencing – and for communication at large. Once the prices become low enough to make it practical, consumer-level equipment will be inevitable; you’ll be able to sit down with friends or family at any distance and have a chat. The goal of every prior breakthrough in communications technology – the telegraph, the telephone, e-mail – has been to bring people closer together; if Microsoft can make this project work as planned, they’ll accomplish that in splendid fashion.