Virtual Conferencing

An avatar-based alternative to videoconferencing.

An avatar-based alternative to videoconferencing.
VenueGen’s virtual environments allow meeting participants to interact via avatars that represent their actual physical characteristics.

People have always been skeptical about technology. It took years before the telephone replaced the telegraph in the late 19th century; even then, many people couldn’t imagine why they’d ever need one in their homes. When “moving pictures” were first demonstrated, audiences refused to believe that the train image on the screen wasn’t about to mow them down. Early demonstrations of radio and, later, television had some people assuming there were actually tiny people inside the cabinetry. New and different ideas always seem to need some connection to the familiar and known before they’re accepted.

The acceptance of videoconferencing and telepresence as a replacement for face-to-face meetings has been slow for similar reasons. In some cases, people just can’t accept the experience as “real.” In other cases, the technology itself gets in the way — it’s expensive, intimidating, and doesn’t always work on the first try. It’s also very limited in its utility; you generally can’t use the equipment for anything but videoconferencing.

The Venue Network (TVN), based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, offers an alternative. Their product, VenueGen, is an ondemand enterprise web 3D conferencing technology that can be integrated into an enterprise’s web site, or an enterprise software vendor’s offering. TVN is marketing the product to medium and large enterprises for collaborative meetings, training and learning, and to training and development companies looking for an improvement over traditional face-to-face training delivery or to update older web collaboration tools.

VenueGen is nothing like videoconferencing. It’s also not attempting to simulate reality. At first glance, it may remind some of a video game, although the company isn’t fond of the comparison; and rightly so. “VenueGen is not a game, not a simulation, not a virtual world,” says company president Jeff Crown. “It is an enterprise-class business application that enables businesses to connect, collaborate, communicate, speed decision making, and manage costs. ”

represent actual meeting

The collaboration experience is based on the creation of realistic-looking avatars that represent actual meeting participants. The avatars interact in a virtual space, which can be anything from a conventional meeting room, an auditorium, or the back deck of a yacht. The avatars make eye contact, gesture, and react appropriately to each other just as live meeting participants would. Your voice is their voice. Your face is the face of the avatar. Crown insists that business clients who use VenueGen feel comfortable interacting through and with avatars. After getting used to the system, he says, “People stop calling their VenueGen avatar ‘it,’ and begin calling it ‘me.’”

VenueGen replaces the videoconferencing camera, codec, HD display, and all the environmental treatment required to optimize the traditional experience (like lighting, acoustics, furniture, etc.) with equipment every business already has — a networked computer. Since it’s based on voice over IP, there’s no need to buy dedicated lines, video gear, or audio bridges.

Why would anyone prefer this to real live videoconferencing? According to Crown, there are many reasons. “First, it’s easy for anyone to access. You can fire up a meeting from your browser and anyone with a browser can join. You can’t do that with video; you need to be close to equipment. And traditional videoconferencing varies from poor web video, to conference room systems, to 3D telepresence systems with three screens, sometimes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. And even then, you can’t always easily connect between businesses because of technology limits. Gee, you can’t connect with your customers, and you spent $500,000? VenueGen is browserbased, accessible from any browser, no equipment investment. And you get 3D, audio, integrated content, and chat.”

Another huge advantage of VenueGen over videoconferencing is that there is no camera watching you. Many people get “camera shy” in a videoconference, and this inhibits them and reduces the productivity of the experience. There are no cameras in the virtual conference, since your avatar is your “face” to other meeting participants.

And then there’s something that no business meeting — live or videoconference — has ever attained. Says Crown, “Our customer surveys came back overwhelmingly with the word ‘fun.’ They said, ‘When was the last time you ran gleefully to an audio call? And weren’t you just dying to get on that last web conferencing call? With VenueGen, you look forward to meeting your colleagues in a 3D room. You see them, hear them, share content, and chat. It’s immersive, it’s fun, and it’s engaging. Oh, and if you don’t pay attention to the meeting, your avatar will fall asleep!”

Although today’s generation of young executives may have grown up on computer-based video games and may even have participated in virtual world simulations, the folks at VenueGen are understandably hesitant to draw parallels. Avatars in virtual worlds typically look like robots, superheroes, or worse. The avatars in VenueGen are created using a licensed technology developed at the University of Southern California that converts a photo into a 3D mesh. Initially, they found that the mesh in itself was unusable as a practical matter in a virtual world because every facial expression requires a different set of morph targets. Transferring all of these 3D images on the fly to a venue full of avatars was too slow and data intensive to be practical. TVN was able to integrate the photo-generated 3D mesh onto a sizable head and bone structure. This breakthrough allowed TVN to use a single mesh per user, and then control expressions by simply moving the coordinates of avatar facial bones by simply sending highly optimized X, Y, Z position data. This application of the technology created the first practical and scalable real-time implementation of realistic photo generated faces within a virtual world. The avatars look and act like the humans they represent. Several dimensions are addressed:

(1) Facial expression: With each participant’s face on the avatar, when they talk their expression changes, and their lips move.
(2) Gestures: The avatar makes gestures automatically.
(3) Postures: Postures can be preset to create a feeling of focused interest or relaxed engagement. These change during a meeting.
(4) Automation: The user doesn’t have to click buttons; users can select a personal avatar profile that combines facial expression, lip movement, postures, interest level, and more.
(5) Voice driven: When a participant speaks,their avatar moves like they would, lifelike.

Customers can get an early release of VenueGen at Downloaded as a browser-based plug-in, VenueGen enables users to drag their own 2D content (PowerPoint slides, charts, etc.) directly into the 3D events they create. And it’s cost-effective; organizations can choose between a free account (with limited functionality), an individual or departmental account for $39 per month, or an enterprise business account with the full feature set for only $4 per “event hour” (about the same as a 7 cent per minute audio call). Introductory packaged pricing is available for corporate accounts.

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