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Looking Video Chat Problems in the Eye

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Several years ago I wrote an article on Interesting Thing of the Day about eye-to-eye video, the problem of making eye contact when videoconferencing. If you've ever used the video capabilities of iChat or Skype, you know what I'm talking about: the person on the other end appears to be looking at your navel (or the person next to you) rather than your face, and you appear the same way on the other person's screen. I've always found this to be weird and uncomfortable, but chalked it up to the limits of technology - the camera has to be above, below, or to the side of the screen, so if you're looking at the image you are not, by definition, looking at the camera and therefore give the impression of not looking at the person you're communicating with.

As anyone who has watched Star Trek knows, this problem no longer exists in the 23rd century. Somehow flat-panel video displays in the future also magically act as cameras too, and you can look directly into the eyes of the person on the screen. As a matter of fact, the secret to this trick may already have been discovered, at least in Apple's labs. A patent the company received in 2006 describes a device in which minuscule sensors and lenses are embedded in a monitor's individual display elements. So instead of having one big sensor and one lens, you have thousands of tiny sensors, each with its own lens; digital processing magic combines all of the incoming data into a single image. Of course, a description in a patent application and a working prototype are two different things, and there's no telling if or when this technology will make its way into consumer products.

Meanwhile, numerous researchers are toying with other clever solutions to the problem. For example, in an experimental system called gaze correction, digital processing alters the appearance of your face in real time to make it look as though your eyes are pointed in a different direction than what the camera is actually capturing. Some implementations of gaze correction use just one camera, while others interpolate the images from multiple cameras. Microsoft Research Cambridge has a Web site that demonstrates a variety of image-manipulation techniques that rely on a pair of cameras.

Of course, I'm leaving out the obvious, low-tech solution, which newscasters and other television performers have been using since the 1950s: the teleprompter. Just stick a piece of glass, or a semitransparent mirror, in front of a camera at a 45-degree angle, and it will reflect whatever is beneath it (a computer screen, a mechanical scroll, or whatever) so that the subject can read it while looking directly into the camera's lens, while the camera sees nothing but the subject. If, instead of a script, the teleprompter's screen shows a video image of someone else, there's your eye-to-eye videoconferencing. Sure enough, several high-end videoconferencing systems use exactly this arrangement.

For your run-of-the-mill computer user, systems that use the teleprompter design have the distinct disadvantage of being outrageously bulky. My MacBook Pro, for example, has an iSight camera built into the case, which despite the limitations inherent in its placement makes for a pleasantly compact arrangement.

Just before moving to France last year, though, I picked up a gadget from Bodelin Technologies called See Eye 2 Eye (or SE2E for short). It's a periscope-like device that uses two mirrors (the top one of which is semitransparent) to turn a portion of my Mac's screen into a teleprompter. The idea is that you clip it to the top of your display and then position the video window from iChat or Skype behind the bottom mirror; it's reflected in the top, semitransparent mirror, which is right in front of your iSight camera. And presto: eye-to-eye videoconferencing in a relatively compact package (9 by 6 by 4 inches, or about 23 x 15 x 10 cm) and at a modest price (around $60).

I bought the SE2E not primarily for video chats, but for remote presentations. Travel costs being what they are, I can't often appear in person at user group meetings in the United States, but I've had several requests to give live, interactive video presentations. I wanted to be able to see my notes while speaking without seeming to look down the entire time, and the SE2E has enabled me to do just that. Combined with the version of iChat in Leopard, I can now even run my own Keynote presentation or demo software on my computer, with a video image of my face in the corner on the remote screen. Although I haven't yet ventured into the world of video podcasts, I could use exactly the same arrangement to do so, perhaps with the addition of teleprompter software such as Bodelin's ProPrompter LCD Software ($125), the new dvcPrompt from ($60), Vara Software's Videocue 2 ($39.99), or the free, Web-based FreePrompter.

Although the SE2E has worked adequately for me (and is certainly reasonably priced for what it is), it does have some potential gotchas. First, Bodelin's Web site advertises two models: the SE2E FOR $49.99 and the SE2E-N for $10 more. The lower-cost model is designed to work with displays that have an external camera mounted on top (such as Apple's discontinued and much-missed iSight), while the SE2E-N is for laptops with cameras built into the display bezel. I ordered the latter model, but what I got was a cross between the two - an apparently new design with removable tabs that allow the device to work on either display configuration. However, I've seen no mention or picture of this design on Bodelin's site or any other - even though I bought my SE2E more than six months ago - and it's not clear why they continue to maintain two separate SKUs when a single design covers all the bases.

Then again, "all the bases" turns out to be an exaggeration, in that none of the SE2E designs works on an iMac with a built-in iSight camera - neither the older, thicker plastic models nor the newer, thinner aluminum ones. The notches that let the SE2E slip over a laptop screen are too narrow to accommodate the iMac's case, which means that the camera would end up beneath, rather than behind, the top mirror. If one were disposed to perform some surgery on the device, it might be made to fit, but I couldn't guarantee it.

Another issue is that the semitransparent mirror sitting in front of the camera darkens the image a bit. Rather than buy extra lamps to shine in my own face while giving video presentations, I've been using Ecamm's $10 iGlasses utility, which lets me digitally brighten my iSight's image to my liking. (iGlasses does lots of other nifty things too, but the low-light image enhancement by itself makes it well worth the price in my book.)

Then there's the size. The SE2E is far too bulky to carry around in a laptop case; I'd only ever use it at home. And because it obscures so much of the display, it's not like I can leave it attached all the time - it goes on the screen only when I need it. So I wish that somehow it were much smaller, perhaps even collapsible. On the other hand, I also dislike having to keep video chat windows scaled down to 4 inches square; that's just too small for comfortable conversations, and when you're using the SE2E as a teleprompter, you have to choose between displaying a very small amount of text or using a small font. So I wish that somehow it were much larger too!

What I truly wish for is a thin screen that can see me as well as I can see it, just like the ones on the Enterprise. With any luck, Apple will make that a reality before the 23rd century.


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