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Face-to-face contact in a virtual environment

Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft Zur Forderung Der Angewandten Forschung E.V. : 15 March, 2003  (New Product)
Although many sectors of the telecommunications industry are eagerly awaiting a ray of hope on the economic horizon, the prospects for video conferencing systems look good: Last year, sales on the European market increased by almost 15 percent, and the consultant Frost & Sullivan predicts that the growth rate will exceed 20 percent next year.
Thanks to advances in sound and image quality, and greater ease of use, the notion of coming together in virtual meetings is more and more accepted in the business world. Above all, the main force behind this development is saving travel time and costs.

Video conferencing is naturally not cost-free either. The chief issue is not so much the charges for broadband data transmission, but more the hardware investment costs. The all-prevailing question is: How much realism is possible at a given data rate? It is the rate and quality at which images can be transmitted that significantly effects the reproduction of movements, body language, eye contact and facial expressions. 'Another important element is camera perspective,' adds Peter Kauff of the new Fraunhofer Institute for Communications Technology, Heinrich-Hertz-Institut HHI. 'If the wrong camera angle is chosen, it gives the impression of talking to someone with a slight squint: You're not sure whether the person is addressing you or someone else.'

Besides finding solutions to problems related to visual perception, Kauff and his 'immersive media & 3D video' group are also working on the electronics side of the system, making optimum use of the capabilities of MPEG-4 technology. This recent standard released by the Motion Picture Experts Group extends, unlike its predecessors - beyond the compression of audio and video data streams. Its most important feature is that, instead of just transmitting rectangular frames, MPEG-4 allows scenes to be selectively disolved into 'audio-visual objects'. In addition, they can also include auxiliary data, such as depth maps describing the three-dimensional form of video objects. In this way, virtual conferences can be presented in a more realistic fashion, with improved visual perspectives. Participants can blend in multimedia content, such as charts, films and three-dimensional presentations, at any point of the meeting. Those who wish to immerse themselves more thoroughly in the topic of cutting-edge immersive 3D video-conferencing systems have the opportunity do so at CeBIT trade fair in Hanover. Scientists from the HHI will be showing their virtual prototype for real in Hall 11 at Stand A24.
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