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Silent Partners
By Suzanne Ross
May 25, 2001 12:00 AM PT

An office is like a cozy nest. Your favorite coffee cup, the one with the broken handle that you won at the company picnic, is close at hand. Your chair, which you've spent hours adjusting, is just right. The family pictures beam up at you, and a bag of cookies is in the file drawer waiting for a quick snack. If there's a fascinating lecture three buildings over, you might not want to leave the comfort of your home away from home to attend.

On the other hand, watching remotely has its drawbacks. What if you want to ask a question, or whisper a comment to the guy sitting next to you? Remote viewing doesn't allow the viewers to socialize with each other, or interact with the speaker. In addition, the speaker may perceive the smaller live audience size that results from remote viewing as a lack of interest in their work. Even if a host assures a speaker that there are "lots" of people watching remotely, a speaker has no evidence of this, and the assurance isn't too convincing.

Gavin Jancke, Jonathan Grudin, and Anoop Gupta of the Collaboration and Multimedia group at Microsoft Research, have developed a system to make it easier for corporate cubby-dwellers to keep the all-important social interaction while they remotely watch lectures on elliptical curves, Bayesian networks and other mesmerizing subjects. Their system, code-named TELEP, which is short for Telepresence, brings the live audience members, speakers, and remote viewers closer to the same experience.

We're in this together
Telep viewers The speaker sees a standard projection display in the back of the room that shows the icons or pictures of the remote viewers, plus the total number of viewers. He can rest assured that there are usually more remote viewers than live audience members.

Grudin says they weren't sure at first if they should display the number of remote viewers. "What if the speaker had expectations of thousands of remote viewers?" he worried. However, a survey showed that speakers assumed there were fewer remote viewers than there actually were. The larger number of viewers showing up on the screen was a pleasant surprise.

Grudin surveyed the remote viewers, the speaker, and the live audience to find out how TELEP had affected them. Before the installation of TELEP, the surveys indicated that the speakers, as well as the live audience, were oblivious to the remote audience. The remote audience reported frustration when they couldn't hear the questions the live audience asked, and only heard the speaker's response. After TELEP, speakers became much more aware of the remote viewers, as did the live audience. Telep panel The remote viewers see a simple user interface with the icons or images of other viewers on the left. The interface gives remote viewers many of the privileges of a live audience member. Viewers can ask the speaker questions, "raise" their hand or "whisper" through private chat to their seatmates�who in this case include any of the other remote viewers.

Remote viewers can represent themselves through a generic icon, a stored image, or a live video stream from their desktop camera. They can display their name or remain anonymous.

The original idea was to have all users take advantage of a live video stream, but this proved somewhat distracting to the speaker and the live audience, because the viewers moved around a lot. They might answer the phone, talk to visitors, eat lunch, or scratch themselves. Their movement could be distracting to the speakers, especially if the remote viewer was obviously ignoring the speaker. Most remote viewers now display a static image.

How does TELEP work?
TELEP is built on the Virtual Worlds platform with an interaction component. Remote viewers see the real-time video of the speaker centered in their screen. The speaker's slides appear to the right, and the TELEP display appears to the left. TELEP makes it possible for a speaker to see and interact with viewers who choose to watch the lecture from afar.

Grudin says, "One of our key goals was to make it as easy for the speaker to use as possible, because many speakers don't have time to learn the system." To achieve this goal, they designed a user interface that didn't require a speaker to push any buttons or learn new technology. They also wanted the remote viewers to feel comfortable interacting with the speaker.

Some of the technical challenges involved in building the system were bandwidth and processing requirements. The available software had latency issues because of buffering and streaming. It could take up to 15 seconds for the speaker to respond to a question from the remote audience. So, Gavin Jancke, the development engineer for the project, wrote his own multicast video streaming program. The program is easy to use; the user doesn't have to configure the system to stream video from a capture camera. All the user needs to do is select the camera they want to use and it starts the stream automatically. Telep interface Jancke set up a demonstration of TELEP at the CEO Summit held at Microsoft. Forty of the almost 200 CEOs attending viewed the summit using laptops, though they were in the same room as the speaker. All 40 images showed up on a publicly visible display as streaming video. In this case, the audience did not seem distracted by the video display; perhaps because all of the images appeared as video and no one stood out. Viewers were able to ask questions and have private chats with each other, and the publicly visible typed chat was lively as well. Jancke had the system tuned to stream 40 videos running on a wireless LAN, using a 300 MHz laptop, and only used 35% CPU and under 1 MB of bandwidth.

Though reaction to TELEP has been generally favorable, there are still some bugs that need working out. Some of the fixes are minor, such as moving the images together when a viewer leaves the lecture so the speaker won't be looking at a display with gaps. Other fixes include improving the sound and picture qualities of the system. As the infrastructure to support online viewing improves, systems such as TELEP will help schools and corporations provide training or informational lectures to a wider audience.