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Dec 13 2011

Immersive Communications: A New Video Conversation Experience

Immersive for the masses

New advances in immersive video technologies will allow service providers (SPs) to bring truly interactive video communications to virtually any device, anywhere. With these new technologies, users will no longer be limited to the confines of telepresence rooms to experience an immersive conversation at long distance. They will be able to experience this at work, at home and on-the-move. Immersive communications includes both verbal and non-verbal communication — such as gestures, body language, posture, facial expression and eye contact — which are necessary for remote participants to engage in honest, genuine and emotional conversations. The ability to add non-verbal elements to the conversation has always been the promise of video collaboration but so far, it hasn't lived up to expectations. Some of the reasons for this are that current video collaboration systems at work are typically:

  • Expensive and restrictive. Costs limit mass adoption. Room and device restrictions limit access.
  • Complex and cumbersome. Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs tests show that call setup for the available systems in the market today routinely take more than 10 minutes of valuable meeting time. Many systems require IT assistance to operate.
  • Formal and non-intuitive. People struggle to become absorbed in conversations. Many simply turn off the video because it doesn't add value or they feel that the video itself is intrusive.

For consumers, video communication services are often delivered by application and content providers (ACPs). That means quality of service (QoS) can't be guaranteed. The combination of video artifacts and latency makes for a frustrating conversation experience.

A new way to communicate

Immersive communications is a disruptive set of new communication technologies that makes communication among multiple people in different locations as easy and natural as face-to-face conversations in the same room. Immersive communications supports direct and spontaneous communications by removing logistical limitations and enabling rich communications in a way that is open and accessible to all. The face-to-face intimacy makes it highly personal and provides improved focus with its unique mixed reality technology. It provides the modern workforce with new ways of working. And, it encourages innovation and creativity in an environment where distributed organizations and groups of remote people can work closer together. With immersive communications today's modern workforce can engage in different types of meetings. For example:

  • Ad hoc meetings that allow remote workers to engage with colleagues and customers in a spontaneous and informal fashion.
  • Scheduled meetings that enable team and project meetings with both internal and external customers and suppliers.
  • Townhall meetings that can accommodate a remote and distributed panel discussion with a virtually unlimited number of spectators. This format can also support internal and external training. And is equally ideal for a client meeting or promotional event or just to create an inspirational ambience.

Immersive communication systems support more users and a wider variety of meetings than other video collaboration systems available today. This translates into a better business case because more time is saved and less travel is needed. Additionally, infrastructure requirements are minimal, compared to traditional solutions. And most importantly, everyone has access to the system. All this adds up to greater savings on a wider scale.

Underlying technology

One of the most notable aspects of immersive technologies is that they remove complexity. For example, the user interface is simple, intuitive and almost invisible. There are many features and technology innovations working behind the scenes, using the power and intelligence in the network to deliver intuitive and natural video conversation experiences with minimal user intervention. These include:

  • Mixed reality: Real people can get together in a virtual room and feel like they are face-to-face in the same space. The technology working behind the scenes — sometimes referred to as mixed reality — is similar to the "green screen" concept used in movie making. Mixed reality, however, is unique in that it works in real time with unpredictable and dynamic backgrounds.
  • Virtual directing: The immersive system automatically composes the video to reflect how people are actually interacting. This may also be called smart video. Based on audio and visual cues, such as head and hand movements the system dynamically determines when to zoom in, change the viewpoint or trigger an action.
  • Cloud-based video processing: All of the intense video processing is done in the network on virtualized central processing units (CPUs) and graphical processing units (GPUs). Devices require only a thin software client, paving the way for any device to be used in the future.

A world of opportunities

With ubiquitous broadband and more devices with built-in web cams, it's the right time to transform video consumption into interactive video communications. For SPs, the opportunities to offer immersive group video services are limited only by imagination. With immersive group video:

  • Enterprises can adopt more flexible work models, hire the best talent anywhere in the world and reduce travel costs.
  • Distributed teams can engage in more creative and truly interactive video conversations, both scheduled and ad hoc.
  • Students can sit in a virtual classroom with real students and a real teacher no matter where they're located.
  • Healthcare practitioners can come together around a virtual table to discuss diagnoses, teach, train and consult with one another.
  • Service companies can offer VIP customers opportunities to join exclusive virtual events with high-end retailers, banks or other organizations.
  • Gamers and online card players can enjoy interactive sessions where all players are in the same virtual room.
  • Families can catch up with one another in virtual family reunions.
  • Friends can watch TV together in the same virtual living room.
  • Consumers can enjoy IPTV services that are truly interactive, joining virtual review panels and discussion groups for their favorite TV programs.

Turn cloud power into profits

Because immersive communications rely so heavily on the network, SPs are in the ideal position to take advantage of the new revenue opportunities it brings. SPs can use the intelligence and power in their networks to deliver real-time immersive group video services with consistently high QoS. They can also offer immersive communications as a hosted cloud service. Many are already moving to distributed cloud architectures that are ideal for hosted and virtualized video services. Many SPs have also moved — or are moving — to an IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) architecture. IMS helps SPs to deliver the immersive group video experience. With IMS they can:

  • Deliver immersive group video experiences to any device with security and guaranteed QoS.
  • Bundle immersive group video services with other multimedia offerings that IMS enables.
  • Take advantage of integrated Operations Support Systems (OSSs) and Business Support Systems (BSSs) to streamline operations for immersive group video services and offer customers a single bill for all services.
  • Expose APIs for key network capabilities, such as presence, location and user profiling. In-house and third-party developers can use these capabilities to bring the immersive video experience even closer to in-person experiences.
  • Extend the immersive experience to the 4G LTE communities.

Strategies and considerations

As SPs determine the best approach to deliver immersive communications in their market, their decisions will be influenced by:

  • The strength of their focus on enterprise, vertical industry and consumer markets.
  • Their views on collaboration versus competition. Truly global services with end-to-end quality of experience must operate over different SPs' networks. Using open standards in the control plane and the media plane enables interoperability across devices, systems and ACP video offerings.

The most innovative and aggressive SPs will want to be first movers in the new market for immersive group video conversations. Others will be fast followers, using first movers' successes and challenges to inform their decisions. Both approaches have merit. However, first movers will have the greatest opportunity to capture and develop a large and loyal customer base for the immersive communications experience. To contact the author or request additional information, please send e-mail to networks.nokia_news@nokia.com.

About Thomas Kallstenius
Thomas Kallstenius is the director for Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs' Immersive Communications. His responsibilities in this role include developing all aspects of strategy, communications and business development. Thomas was appointed to his current role in January 2011. He is also the director of customer business transformation within Bell Labs, with specific focus on video communication and application enablement. Prior to this role he was the marketing director in charge of Alcatel-Lucent's fixed access product marketing for Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and Central and Latin America. Before joining Alcatel-Lucent, Thomas worked as a business case expert and project manager for fixed access related projects within Ericsson. He has headed research projects within the European Commission's framework programs and has dealt with a variety of different research topics, such as FTTH, WDM, free-space optics, network convergence, synchronization and component reliability. Thomas holds a Master's degree in Engineering Physics from the Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm, Sweden). He also has a Ph.D in fiber optics materials from Uppsala University (Sweden) as well as an MBA from Vlerick Management School in Belgium. He is a former board member of the FTTH Council Europe and chairman of its market intelligence committee. Thomas is also the author of more than 10 scientific articles with contributions to various international conferences and symposiums.