CuteChat wins DEMOguru Award at DEMO Asia


Advanced Digital Sciences Center Research Scientist Jiangbo Lu and his video cutout technology, CuteChat, was one of five demonstrations to win the DEMO guru award at the DEMO Asia 2012 conference earlier this month in Singapore. ADSC is an institute in the Coordinated Science Laboratory.

From left: Jiangbo Lu, Jeremy Heng and Boon Leng Lee
From left: Jiangbo Lu, Jeremy Heng and Boon Leng Lee

The conference, which ran from February 29 to March 2, is the first to be held in Asia and is a launchpad for emerging technology and trends. DEMO conferences are held across the world and have earned a reputation for consistently identifying cutting-edge technology of the future.

Lu developed the video cutout technology at ADSC as part of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor Minh Do's research project on low-cost virtual reality. CuteChat is a lightweight video chat system that allows the average user to manipulate the background of their video. CuteChat removes the background for the user's camera feed and replaces it with another background, such as a landscape scene, or video feed.

Lu and his company, Pixtelz, were hand selected to participate in the inaugural DEMO Asia, as part of 76 teams from 14 countries.

"It's a great recognition for Pixtelz, a less-than-6-month old, tiny startup, and is another milestone for us," Lu said.

During the demonstration, Boon Leng Lee, Pixtelz CEO and co-founder, had a live conversation via Skype with ADSC Deputy Director Jeremy Heng and ADSC software engineer Huanliang Sun. By using prerecorded footage of locations around Singapore, Heng was able to fool Lee into believing that he was waiting for a flight at an airport, eating lunch in a food court, working in his office and even showed him photos from a recent vacation. He also demonstrated some of the special effects CuteChat offers, such as fuzzing out confidential information, hiding people in the background of a room, changing the foreground of the image and displaying presentation materials.

"This was another crowd-pleaser, as the entrepreneur showed off how he could fake out his boss, or even his wife, by pretending to be in his office, while he was really out having fun," Executive Producer of DEMO Matt Marshall said in his DEMO Asia review on VentureBeat.

Lu received positive feedback from panel judges, senior management and Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) colleagues that the demonstration was "fantastic" and one of the "best demos" of the conference. Additionally, he said the demonstration looked so real, many audience members weren't able to figure out where Heng was, even after the demonstration. Heng and Sun were actually in a meeting room in the same building as the conference.

"I think it really shows that something developed in the lab at ADSC, as a result of basic research, can step out of the lab and be well liked by the users," Lu said. "This is a very good example of the excellence of our research and also its relevance to the society and its potential commercial value."

In addition to the special effects CuteChat adds to video chatting, CuteChat's object-based video coding reduces bandwidth requirements and speeds up the video coding process, both by a factor of four. This video cutout technology was the first ADSC research output to be protected as a trade secret by Exploit Technologies, the commercialization arm of A*STAR.

"For Pixtelz, such an award brings much attention and publicity," Lu said. "We now have good networking with participants from various backgrounds offline. It makes our next move easier."

As for the future of Pixtelz, Lu said they plan to release their QuickToon video stylization software for free trial download in the coming months. They also plan to seek further funding and hope to leverage this award to attract more potential users worldwide.

For more information about CuteChat or to view a video demonstration, visit ADSC's Research Highlights page or YouTube page.