Virtual Reality Phone Booths Are Already Here

This telepresence system can connect any number of devices to the same virtual world.

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May 25 2015, 3:08pm

Image: Author

Meeting up with a pal is a bit tough when you're flying around a virtual reality world made of polygonal trees rendered in flat greens and browns.

Inside the research labs in the Satosphere building in Montreal, where the IX Symposium for immersive experiences is currently being held, I'm wearing an Oculus Rift, surrounded by three Kinect devices that are capturing my physical form and digitizing it. In another room, Emmanuel Durand, one of the system's developers, is standing in a half-dome lined with video projectors connected to the internet, immersed in the same world as I. His body is also being digitized and imported into this world, so I can see him in my headset.

The set-up is called the Posture Platform. The system, which was originally designed six years ago and has undergone revisions and updates since then—the most recent of which is the triple Kinect set-up (before, the platform used single cameras)—is meant to be a modular set-up.

The virtual reality side of the system. Image: Author

In the implementation I tried, virtual reality and an immersive video dome were linked, but you could theoretically add any number of devices, and any kind, to the set-up, Durand told me. Previous installations have connected Posture Platform nodes in Montreal, London, UK, and Toronto.

"This kind of device could become the next-generation phone booth in the street," Durand told me. "You could go inside, be captured in real-time, and you could see other people inside other phone booths. There's also a lot of promise to use it as an artistic and technological tool; you could use this for telepresence work. People could be in front of a virtual car prototype, and engineers could work on the [design of the] car."

The Posture Platform's approach to telepresence is less like the Segway-looking robots that are currently being used to care for the elderly in Europe, and more like something out of Star Trek.

Despite the Posture Platform's clever set-up, I couldn't find Durand after a few minutes of searching around the world, and he couldn't find me. When I finally figured out how to land on solid virtual ground, I was stuck, hidden behind a tree. After hunting for each others' digitized bodies for a while, we ended up meeting in mid-air, and we had a conversation.

The dome side of the system. Image: Author

It was, surprisingly, a pretty convincing illusion. I could hear and see Durand, and he could hear and see me.

But there are still a few key problems to be worked out with Posture Platform, chief of which is the ability to digitize a convincing avatar. Although my experience got the point across, Durand looked like he had three heads and a hole in his face. He told me I looked very dark because there wasn't enough light where I was standing. Bandwidth is also a concern, because many people transmitting detailed avatars over a given network is bound to be resource-intensive.

With these issues in mind, it doesn't seem like we'll see telepresence kiosks on the streets any time soon. But if that sci-fi scenario ever comes to pass, the Posture Platform doesn't look like a bad way to do it. With these issues in mind, it doesn't seem like we'll see telepresence kiosks on the streets any time soon. But if that sci-fi scenario ever comes to pass, the Posture Platform doesn't look like a bad way to do it.

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