Known as iSee, the technology merges videoconferencing with interactive, virtual environments. It’s been built by University of Wollongong (UOW) researchers in partnership with the Smart Services CRC and now through the spin-off company, iSee VC. iSee operates by immersing dozens of users in a game-like setting where they appear as ‘mevatars’.
Like avatars in online gaming, ‘mevatars’ represent the user in a virtual space. However, while avatars are typically an alter ego or fantasy character, mevatars are created by streaming the user’s webcam into an immersive setting in real time, enabling authentic face-to-face interactions.
The technology can stream more than 50 webcams in a virtual space where users can move around, form groups, converse and share content. It employs point sensitive hearing, where multiple users occupying the space and engaging in multiple conversations will only hear what is within earshot – just as they would in the real world.
iSee is designed to mimic natural conversations and the real life act of mingling, explained Chief Technical Officer Professor Farzad Safaei, from UOW’s ICT Research Institute.
“You can have multiple, simultaneous conversations going on in the setting between different groups,” Safaei said. “Importantly, the user – not the system – chooses who to focus on. From an education and training perspective, this makes it easier for students to interact with their peers, which is one of the key elements missing from online education tools.”
The NSW Department of Education and Communities is already trialling the iSee program to connect secondary students and teachers from a large metropolitan high school with staff and students from a small regional high school.
Colin Wood, who leads the department’s Virtual Learning Environment team, said the technology is helping students overcome regional isolation.
“It eliminates the need to travel long distances to experience natural social interaction and access specialist education, training and professional development,” he said. Wood agreed that a major benefit is that users can interact as they would in a physical space, such as a classroom.
Teachers have the ability, for example, to post slides and content on virtual whiteboards, break students into groups and then circulate, listen to the chat and provide feedback. Meanwhile, students can meet, interact, share ideas and collaborate with each other.
Safaei said iSee requires at least 70% less bandwidth to operate than other videoconferencing systems. This is because to any given user, it only transmits the audio and video from people who are visible or within earshot inside the virtual setting.
“You could have 20–25 users in the environment, but one user on average is only downloading three to four videos,” he said.
Although commercialisation has been initially focused on education and training, iSee’s Client Business Innovation Leader Jessica Sullivan said the technology is set to have wide-ranging applications for organisations interested in humanising the web.
– Myles Gough