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Scientists create video social network

Playing Pictionary using TA2 pic: Goldsmiths

Computer scientists at Goldsmiths, University of London have developed a video-communication system that allows people in different locations to communicate naturally as if they were socializing together in the same room.

The ‘Together Anywhere, Together Anytime’ (TA2, pronounced ‘Tattoo’,) project has been funded by the European Commission and involves Goldsmiths together with a number of research and commercial partners, including BT. It aims to investigate ways technology can improve group-to-group communication and enable families and friends separated by thousands of miles to spend time with each other comfortably playing board games, sharing photographs, videos, and stories, mingling at birthday parties, and celebrating family holidays together.

For those familiar with Apple’s FaceTime, Microsoft’s Skype, and other similar media and communication software applications and devices, TA2 may not sound like anything radically new. However, while those technologies serve the individual, TA2’s goal is to serve groups, allowing them to freely communicate and participate in social interactions.

Modern devices such as smart phones, computers, and electronic games tend to be owned by an individual and they provide personal experiences, but Dr Doug Williams, technical director of the TA2 project at BT, said: “From grandparents reading bedtime stories to their grandchildren, to friends sharing their daily news, TA2 supports the natural interaction of groups of people or families coming together.”

Fans of science fiction will know that Jules Verne imagined the first videophone in 1889, 123 years ago, and from then on the idea of communicating interactively has continued to evolve perhaps even becoming commonplace. Today, in 2012, the TA2 project offers real and exciting hints of seemingly futuristic technology.

TA2 uses multiple internet-connected cameras, directional microphones, speakers and HD TV displays in the home, but most impressively it uses artificial intelligence, or AI for short. Through a unique cognitive process known as ‘intelligent video orchestration’ TA2 decides, in real-time, how to control the cameras and mix the video coming from the multiple sources for each screen which makes the social event more natural and authentic.

Dr Marian Ursu, who directed the TA2 project’s technological developments, and who is head of research in the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths, explains: “The automated decision making process is aware of the conversation flow and is able to respond to it with appropriate mixing and editing techniques similar to those used in television.”

Ian Kegel, Technical Architect of the TA2 project at BT , said: “BT is keen to understand the new applications and experiences that our customers will enjoy using superfast broadband, and Goldsmiths’ expertise with artificial intelligence helps us to understand how both entertainment and communication may develop in the future.”

By Sean Lindholm

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