Archive for April, 2007

Eye Contact

April 25, 2007

jetsons-videophone.jpgThe team of animators, engineers and other developers who created The Act was spread out among several locations in North America. We made heavy use of Apple’s iChat video conferencing software to keep in close contact. Despite iChat’s incredible convenience and low cost, it has one major drawback that diminishes its usefulness: the eye contact problem.

The problem is well documented in scholarly papers and blog posts. Normally, when videoconferencing, you want to look at the screen so you can see the person you are talking to. But when you look at the screen, you are not looking at the camera, so you appear to your partner to be looking away.

I can attest that this makes a huge difference. People’s faces just look different when you look them in the eye. There is a natural tendency to look engaged when someone is looking at you. If your partner looks away, your face relaxes and looks blank. With videoconferencing, there is a vicious cycle of blank stares that can easily be (and often was) interpreted as hostility. The absolute worst was meeting a new person for the first time via video. But even with colleagues whom I considered close friends, it was easy to misunderstand each other. Humor was difficult. I sometimes forced myself to smile or look straight into the camera for my partner’s sake. Video conversations felt less personal than the regular, audio-only telephone. Despite the constant video contact, we found it critically important to physically travel for frequent, real-life “face time.”

When the eye contact problem is solved, videoconferencing will be a completely different animal. It will be possible to look at a life-sized face on a screen, and have it look right back at you. It will be possible to read all kinds of meaning from a person’s gaze. It will be possible to say without words that you hear what they are saying and that you understand. Then, there should be a tipping point of effectiveness that will create a big drop in the need for business travel—and a corresponding surge in productivity.

Microsoft is working to solve the problem with software that modifies the eyes in a video image so that the eyes (falsely) appear to be looking straight at the camera. Others, including Apple, have solutions that place the camera in line with the screen. A year ago, Apple patented a new kind of video monitor with tiny cameras between all the pixels. The Apple fan-boy nation is waiting with bated breath for this to become a product.

While we are waiting, a small technology company has offered a stop-gap solution called “See Eye 2 Eye.” SE2E works like a teleprompter to place a camera in line with a display. Although it is affordable ($100 for a pair), it has limitations (bulkiness, small image size, image darkness) that will probably prevent it from creating the tipping point of my dreams.

Some day, true eye-contact video conferencing will change the world. If you want to glimpse that future, give See Eye 2 Eye a try.