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Microsoft Research Shows Off Its Next Generation Telepresence Technology

March 1, 2012 | Howard Lichtman
Microsoft's Future Vision for "The Magic Window" a large format telepresence environment with augmented reality - From their 2009 Productivity Future Vision video

Say the word Microsoft and most people will think of software (or XBox) before they think of telepresence and visual collaboration but the company has slowly and surely been building a portfolio of visual collaboration assets.  Microsoft bought Skype in May of 2011 for $8.5 billion giving them the world's largest network of video endpoints and the most valuable directory to find and connect with them.  The company's Xbox can do videochat using its depth-sensing Kinect camera and the Kinect camera has been integrated into all manner of telepresence experiments from 3D telepresence rooms to scanning 3D scenes to creating augmented reality spaces to the teleoperation of humanoid robots.  It is speculated that the next generation of Kinect will even be able to lip-read.

So you might say that Microsoft has some telepresence tools in their toolbox. 

They also have a vision.  The picture above illustrates their vision for what is known internally at Microsoft as the "Magic Window".  A visual collaboration space that combines life-size representation of remote participants with augmented reality information that compliments the interaction. 

Last week Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, demonstrated a few of Microsoft Research's future-looking telepresence research efforts at a TechForum event.

The Holoreflector, an augmented reality display that combines a mirror, a large-format LCD display, a Kinect camera, and a WP7/WP8 smartphone.

Sneak peak #2 was a see-through 3D desktop display that recognizes hand motion to allow physically browsing information that appears to be 3D behind a see-through display.  Kinect cameras track both the movement of the hands browsing the objects and the user's head motion to alter perspective.

Next up the project that looks like it has the most immediate commercial potential:  IllumiShare: a "seeing display." IllumiShare is a combination projector and a camera. The camera captures an area on your desk and transmits the image over a network to a duplicate setup somewhere else in the world while simultaneously sharing the view of the remote participant's desktop turning both into a shared space.

The project that advances the "Magic Window" concept the most is Microsoft prototype lens called "the wedge" that has been paired with a see-through Samsung OLED display. Because OLED displays are inherently slightly transparent the lens of a camera (in the this case both infrared and visible light cameras) can focused at "the wedge" which bounces the image through the OLED effectively turning the screen into a camera.  This has been one of the "Holy Grails" of telepresence as a camera embedded in a screen would allow for perfect eye-contact between conferees.  It also represents one of the double-edged swords of technology as it would eliminate the visible (and easily cover-able) webcams and embedded cameras we are familiar with today ushering in the missing piece of technology needed to produce the ubiquitous surveillance of the telescreens in George Orwell's 1984.

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