Sitting together virtually

From Star Trek to Harry Potter, almost every self-respecting sci-fi or fantasy story uses it: that magical fiction called teleportation. Emiel Harmsen, who spent part of his graduation period in San Francisco, has built a Virtual and Augmented Reality system that brings it one step closer to reality.

A Virtual and augmented reality system close to teleportation

Emiel built the system during his graduation project for the Human Media Interaction / Interaction Technology Master’s programme and has called it openIMPRESS (for open source IMmersive PRESence System). ‘With openIMPRESS two people who are in different places can be together virtually,’ he says. ‘You could use it for long-distance visits with family and friends, or for offering or receiving remote assistance, say if your car has broken down. Microsoft has demonstrated a similar system, but it’s not available publicly – I made mine with consumer-grade components you can buy anywhere.’

With the VR glasses, you're right there with the other person in their surroundingsEmiel Harmsen

Sitting together virtually 

To use the system, you put on a pair of VR glasses, while your faraway friend wears AR (Augmented Reality) glasses. Using gaming software, Emiel’s system generates a 3D model of your friend’s environment and streams the data to your VR set. Open your eyes and – presto – you’re right there with your friend at his place. You can talk, admire his surroundings, or virtually sit down next to him. Using the AR glasses, your friend sees a hologram of you coming over and seating yourself beside him. ‘Actually, at this point, I can only give the wearer of the AR glasses a hologram of your hands and head, thanks to trackers on the VR set,’ says Emiel. ‘Your friend will see a pair of virtual hands moving around in his environment. So you could virtually give him a high five. Or if you were a car mechanic and his car was broken, you could give him very precise instructions on what to do.’

It was a fascinating experience. It really is like teleportation.Prof. dr. Dirk Heylen

A fascinating experience

Professor of Socially Intelligent Computing Dirk Heylen is one of several people who have tried Emiel’s system. ‘It was a fascinating experience,’ he says. ‘It really is like teleportation. You’re in two different places, but you come together in a shared virtual space. And this time you’re not represented by an avatar, like you are in applications such as Second Life, but it’s a realistic representation.’ Dirk’s main interest in openIMPRESS is that it opens up a rich potential of research possibilities. ‘It provides a means of exchanging and manipulating all kinds of data, from audio and video to motion sensing. That makes it an entirely new framework for research into human and human-system interaction. It also means we can experiment with connecting other shared, mixed realities, for example, by adding Internet of Things or virtual humans. Emiel’s work is going to keep the Interaction Technology community busy for some time to come.’

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