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PanaCast: The Next Generation of Full Room Video Coverage
Here at Telepresence Options, our focus has always been on applying and adapting videoconferencing technology in ways that provide a more natural and immersive meeting experience. We have come a great way from the dark ages of pixilated postage stamp sized images. Today's top of the line telepresence systems address many of the more distracting elements of remote meetings, by providing full sized images, improved eye contact, proper room layouts and screen positioning, high quality audio, etc. However, even the best systems still have a few limitations that take away from the natural meeting experience. One such limitation is the fact that with most solutions it is not easy (and in many cases not even possible) for the remote participant to simply look around the room.
The PanaCast, from Altia Systems, solves this problem with a novel and elegant approach. The concept is certainly resonating. The company reached their Kickstarter goal three times over, and expect to start shipping soon, as they continue to add new features and capabilities.
Imagine attending an in-person meeting while wearing blinders and being unable to turn your head. Wouldn't that be a distraction? If someone sitting to your left started to speak, wouldn't you naturally want to turn your head and look at that person? Obviously, these bizarre limitations would immensely impact your meeting experience. Yet, in many videoconferencing sessions, this is exactly what we have; a fixed field of view from a locked down camera, which blocks our natural instincts to simply look around the room. This can contribute to an unnatural, awkward, and distracting experience.
Previously, we had three options to address this problem, all of which involve unsatisfying compromises. These options are as follows...
1. PTZ Cameras: The most frequently used solution is the common PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) camera with FECC (far end camera control). In other words, the remote participant has control over the camera in the meeting room and can point it in the direction she wishes to look. This does remove the virtual blinders from our remote participant, but it involves a few compromises. For example, the moving camera could be distracting to people in the room, and can be hard for the remote participant to control.
2. Multiple Cameras: The second possible solution would be to install multiple cameras in the room, covering all angles, and allow the remote participant to switch views between these cameras. This will give you full room coverage, but can be is cost prohibitive. Also, switching between multiple camera views isn't a natural and intuitive way to look around a room. I wouldn't expect the typical videoconferencing user to be able to master the art of constantly choosing the correct camera in order to maximize his experience while still focusing on the actual content of the meeting.
3. Panoramic Capture: A third possible solution would be to use a camera with a panoramic capabilities to cover the entire room from one lens. This does have the advantage of showing the entire room to the remote viewer, but it is an unnatural view, and doesn't allow the remote viewer to get a good close look at the speaker. Panorama views are great for artistic shots, but not for natural meeting experiences.
PanaCast provides the advantages of all these previous approaches, without any of the compromises. It allows remote users to control their view of the room using common touch screen gestures. Think of the intuitive way we look at large pictures on our phones and tablets, pinching to zoom in on an area of interest, and swiping to look at different areas of the picture. This is basically the PanaCast user experience. The device captures the entire room (200 degree field of view) without any moving or switching of cameras, and the remote caller can simply use common tablet gestures to "look around."
The way it achieves this result is extremely clever. The six cameras embedded in the PanaCast capture the entire room, and then the six images are stitched together by the software to provide one seamless panoramic image. The final, full panoramic motion video is sent to the remote viewer, who can use everyday touch controls to easily zoom in on the area of interest. If she wishes to "look around" she can simply swipe to any area in the scene. The images below are an example of what the PanaCast could capture, and how a user can choose which portion of the overall image to view.
The PanaCast system can operate as a one directional streaming experience, or as a conventional 2-way system and the potential for additional uses is pretty clear. PanaCast recently added integrated bi-directional audio. This is a welcome addition, allowing remote callers to participate without having to also call in on the phone. Eventually, I see the PanaCast technology being part of more complete videoconferencing and telepresence solutions. Either Altia will continue to add capabilities and features, or someone big will snap them up and find a way to integrate the technology with existing full featured solutions.
PanaCast will be at CES 2013 in Las Vegas this week, so be sure to stop by Suite 388 at the Las Vegas Hotel and check it out if you are there for the show.
About the Author
David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate editor at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their telepresence, videoconferencing, and visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.
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