Imagine turning on the news and seeing the anchor look down at his or her script during the entire broadcast. "You'd tune out pretty quickly, wouldn't you?" asks Steve McNelley, a psychologist and co-founder of Digital Video Enterprises, a videoconferencing systems provider. The company, along with Microsoft and a handful of other startups, is tackling a problem that's hamstrung videoconferencing's popularity as a one-on-one communication tool: the inability of conference participants to look each other in the eye.
Eye contact is among the most important aspects of establishing trust, researchers and psychologists say. But most desktop videoconferencing systems position the camera above the monitor, making people appear to be looking down. Microsoft Research is fine-tuning a program that gathers data about the position of a person's head, eyes, and nose from the video stream of a camera placed under that person's monitor. The program then transposes the video image onto a 3-D computer-generated head that can be manipulated to appear as if it's looking into the camera, rather than over it. Microsoft hopes to incorporate the software into NetMeeting, its online Web-conferencing product. Microsoft is ironing out the kinks of the program, which can distort facial images, says Jim Gemmell, a Microsoft researcher.
Digital Video offers custom-built videoconferencing systems that use half-silvered mirrors to create the illusion of eye contact by aligning the camera with the images from the monitor. The mirror is placed in front of the camera at a forward-tilting angle, which lets it reflect the images from an upward-facing monitor positioned just below the camera. It works much like teleprompters used in television to feed lines to actors and anchors.
Digital Video is negotiating production and marketing deals for the system.