New 3D tele-immersion research may help realize affordable virtual interaction
Imagine a soldier virtually interacting with his young family while deployed overseas. Or envision a patient in New York receiving critical medical treatment virtually from a specialized doctor in California. And finally, consider having virtual light saber duels with a friend in sunny Brazil while you’re stuck studying in chilly Champaign.
All of the above scenarios may soon be realities if advances in 3D tele-immersion technology continue, according to computer science professor and CSL researcher Klara Nahrstedt and her team of students.
"It's a way of merging multiple physical spaces into one virtual space to enable remote physical activity," explained Raoul Rivas, a computer science graduate student who works with Narhstedt.
3D tele-immersion takes place when two or more individuals at geographically separated sites try to collaborate in a 3D virtual world. Each stands on a stage equipped with multiple 3D stereo cameras with synchronization devices. A screen is set up so that the subject can see a projected image of him- or herself.
The cameras receive periodic signals, which enable them to take synchronized pictures. When taking pictures, the background is removed, leaving only the image of the person created by the 3D reconstructed frame. This image disseminates over the Internet to the other participant’s location. The 3D image then is displayed on the screen, allowing the users to interact.
Nahrstedt began researching 3D tele-immersion in 2004, after she returned from a sabbatical at the University of California – Berkeley. The following year, she produced her first 3D tele-immersion system on the Illinois campus. Though this type of research has existed for about 10 years, Nahrstedt uniquely focuses on making this technology more applicable and affordable, with the intent of introducing it to the public one day.
“When 3D tele-immersion research began, there was a greater focus on the coding of the video and depth representations, but then a new idea came to us: what about creating tele-immersive systems that would be available and affordable for everybody?” Nahrstedt said. “We thought there must be a way to get collaborative pieces between people without using big supercomputing centers.”
In 2005, Nahrstedt founded TEEVE (Tele-immersive Environment for EVErybody) at Illinois, a project that works to emerge tele-immersive 3D multi-camera room environments. These environments allow us to engage in distributed physical activities such as physical therapy, sport activities and entertainment, the project’s Web site states.
Nahrstedt said TEEVE aims to prepare 3D tele-immersion for use in a variety of applications, including providing remote medical care for those without access and helping athletes to improve their game. In addition, 3D tele-immersion can be used in emergency first-response situations – before an ambulance even arrives at a hospital, a doctor may have the ability to look at an injured individual virtually and have a better idea of how to quickly provide the treatment needed to save his or her life.
3D tele-immersion consumes a large amount of processing power, so Nahrstedt’s current challenge is increasing this power to allow all of the technology’s applications to fit into a single machine, which would be more practical for every day consumers.
“There are many challenges we need to solve; it's a very interesting project,” Rivas said. “But it’s also fun. It’s very visual, so we can see the results of our research and share it with others.”