Electronic Design

From Basic Basement Webcams To High-Tech Telepresence Suites

I ’ll admit I’m late to the webcam thing. But when my daughter-in-law suggested a webcam as a Christmas present last December, I jumped at it. She and my son live in Tennessee and I don’t get a chance to see the grandkids very much—Cal, who is two and a half years old, and Autumn, who is four months.

We went to a Best Buy in the Nashville area and picked up two Microsoft LifeCams at $99 each, which I thought was a bit expensive, since I often see webcams advertised for $9.99 (after rebate). But the LifeCam seemed to be ahead of the pack in terms of resolution (1024 by 768) and features—face tracking, for one.

After Christmas, we set it up and gave it a try. We had some problems at first, but eventually we got both systems working fine. I was particularly impressed when I made a gesture to tickle Cal, and he tried to protect his belly as if I were in the same room with him.

Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger facilitates the webcam experience. The webcam is simply an extension of the more ubiquitous instant messaging application. So instead of asking a toddler like Cal to “chat” via the keyboard, all you have to do is click on the webcam icon.

And since the LifeCam has a built-in microphone, you don’t have to worry about plugging in an external mic. There’s even a feature that rings like a phone to alert you of a call. You can make a call either by pressing a switch on top of the webcam or by selecting it in the messaging application.

During last month’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I visited the Cisco Systems Meeting Room and was looking around when I noticed a telepresence demo. Since I was on the lookout for telepresence information to include in this issue’s cover story (see “High-Def Video Brings Telepresence Into Focus,” p. 27), I decided to check it out.

Telepresence is like a webcam on steroids. Better yet, it’s like a comparison of Clark Kent and Superman. I entered the Cisco telepresence demo room, which featured a 50-in. flat-panel monitor on the wall. I then sat down next to a representative, and she explained what was going on.

She told me that this particular demo was of the singlescreen version of the Cisco telepresence system, the TelePresence 1000. By dialing a phone, we connected to two other reps, one in another telepresence demo room about 10 yards away and another at a facility eight miles away.

When the rep who was eight miles away came up on the screen, she looked clear and sharp on the high-def video display. She was sitting on a couch and almost looked like she was in the demo room chatting with us. Audio wasn’t via the phone, but by a conference call speaker, which was excellent.

When the woman from the other telepresence demo room started speaking, she popped up on the screen automatically and the first rep disappeared. The switching continued automatically as one rep and then the other spoke. It all seemed very natural.

I asked what would happen if we were in a heated conversation and all four of us tried to speak at the same time. The rep with me said that the system would display the person speaking the loudest. The TelePresence 1000 system did not show a split-screen view.

The lighting around my webcam at home is awful. I hooked the LifeCam up to the computer in my basement, which has overhead fluorescent lights that are quite distracting. Also, the glare from my monitor off of my glasses makes me look like I have these strange alien eyes. I have to take off my glasses when I talk to Cal, since I don’t want him to think of me as some kind of monster.

The Cisco demo room had terrific lighting, which added to the excellent video experience. But I can’t say for sure if there were any reflections off my glasses—probably not, since we were sitting about 10 feet from the display. A camera was pointed at us from just above the display.

The Cisco TelePresence system can also work with multiple high-definition displays in an office setting. To see what these systems look like, visit www.cisco.com/telepresence.

While doing my research for the cover story in this issue, I came across a company that is just down the road from our offices, called Vidyo. Its conferencing solutions are the first to take advantage of the most recent enhancement to the H.264 standard for video compression—scalable video coding (SVC). Check it out at www.vidyo.com.

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