Computer science boffins at Microsoft's research labs in Cambridge have developed i2i, a stereo camera for use with instant messaging technology that automatically frames and tracks its subject. This makes it seem that the user is looking at the camera, even he is actually looking at his PC screen: so video communication is more like face-to-face conversation.
Using multiple webcams and a new algorithm, the technology creates a 3D image which can be rotated and viewed from many angles. Like 3D photography, this relies on combining two (or more) sets of camera data to produce one Cyclopean image. Unlike still photography, the algorithm can produce the image in real time, on an ordinary laptop.
The team has also developed 3D emoticons. These can be included in the combined image, and appear to float in orbit around the users head, with pretty impressive field depth. It can also blur the background, allowing a certain amount of self censorship, or insert an entirely alien background.
"This part is counter-intuitive," says lead researcher Antonio Criminisi, "But we get a better image if there is a cluttered background. The Cyclopean view of the face will be fine if the background is plain, but the background will be attached to the back of the head as there is no way of discriminating between two points on the background.
"This works just fine for just normal stereo video, but if you want to do anything else, superimpose the image on other backgrounds or do anything with the flying emoticons for instance, it starts to behave very strangely."
Criminisi, who joined the research team at Microsoft from his post-doc work at Oxford, says the technology is not far off being ready for commercialisation. Processor load is still an issue, but has come a long way in the last six months, he says, and will work respectably (at around 10 frames per second) on an unexceptional laptop now.
There is, however, no guarantee that it will ever make it out of the lab and into product development. "It is what every researcher wants, to see your work make it in the real world, but we'll wait and see," Criminisi shrugs.
The team is now working on a way of developing a 3D mask that could be wrapped over the users real face. This could be used to create avatars in games, for example. "Once you have reconstructed the 3D geometry of your image, there are so many cool things you can do," he said. ®