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Bell Labs builds telepresence 'robots'

November 7, 2011 | Hogan Keyser
November 7, 2011 by Liz Tay via -- Nethead could reach market in two years.

Videoconferencing 'robots' in development at Alcatel-Lucent's research arm, Bell Labs, could give remote workers a more physical presence in office meetings within two years.

Researchers are working on a low-cost camera and screen that swivels on a set of robotic shoulders, and sits at a meeting table with physical attendees.

Each so-called 'Nethead' represents a remote participant, who appears by video on the screen, and can control the direction the robot faces by naturally turning his or her head.

Traditional videoconferencing brands like Cisco and Polycom offer remote collaborators high-end screens and custom-built meeting rooms for high-quality audio and video.

But according to Bell Labs' residential applications research director Jan Bouwen, there is more to an immersive discussion than sound and video.

Bouwen highlighted the value of a "turn-taking mechanism" that determines who should be next to speak.

In person, two people who begin to speak to a group at the same time tend to take their cues from the direction in which most group members are looking.

Those subtle cues are lost in current videoconferences, Bouwen said.

"It's almost like gaze direction is a consensus mechanism [that determines] who can continue," he said.

"Even with high-definition video, you can't see who in room one is looking at who in room two. That's a research challenge we're trying to tackle.

"Someone showing clear agreement or clear disagreement is [also] important. If you're trying to explain something, knowing who is confused and not following is important."

Bell Labs chief scientist Alice White noted that Nethead was currently a research project, not a product, but could be commercialised within two years.

It would likely suit meetings that involved only one remote participant, and would cost "hundreds", not the "tens of thousands of dollars" usually required for high-end telepresence deployments, she said.

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