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News Details | 09-Nov-2011

Spanning across three continents, new NTU centre shows the possibilities in 3-D communication


Chloe, the virtual receptionist, animatronic avatar and room-based telepresence system are among the exciting research projects showcased

You walk into your office building and the receptionist calls your name, saying, “Good morning, you look cheery today.” Except the receptionist is not a person but a virtual human. That is what Chloe can do and more. She recognises faces, remembers past conversations you have had with her and can have a real conversation with you.

And if you’re not able to attend that meeting or orientation tour of a new retail store in the USA, you can soon send your avatar that can mimic – in real-time – your head pose, eye contact, and even your facial expressions.  It captures and maps your dynamic motion and appearance onto a humanoid animatronic avatar.  This enables you to project a real-time representation of yourself to the people you’re talking to at a remote location distances away, as if you are really there.  And in the near future, you will even be able to move them around, as researchers work on mounting the avatar on a mobility platform. 

Want to find out what your colleagues are up to at your global HQ’s watering hole halfway around the world?  A research prototype allows you to look through a glass window using 3-D glasses and chat with them in real-time. As you move around, your perspective of the room changes, depending on where you are standing. This room-based telepresence system will in future provide real-time 3D interactions with others thousands of kilometres away, with all parties feeling as if they are in one common room.  With the aid of depth cameras and stereoscopic 3-D screens, these telepresence rooms share glass displays that give the illusion that the distant rooms are adjacent, separated only by glass.

These innovations are prototypes of advanced 3-D communication technologies being developed by the new BeingThere Centre at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU).  The $23 million centre is set to drive the next evolution in virtual communications, as it focuses on developing a variety of interdisciplinary and advanced technologies that break down physical barriers, generating real, face-to-face conversation. The BeingThere Centre is a transnational effort spearheaded by NTU, Singapore, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich, Switzerland) and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill, USA), as well as the Media Development Authority (MDA) of Singapore.

The Centre was opened today by Mr Michael Yap, Executive Director of the Interactive Digital Media R&D Programme Office at MDA.  The Centre, located within NTU’s Institute for Media Innovation, spans 240 square metres, housing new workspace and three new laboratories dedicated to developing advanced and sophisticated forms of interactive real-time 3-D communication, known as “telepresence” and “telecollaboration” systems of the future.

Professor Freddy Boey, NTU’s Deputy President and Provost said, "NTU is proud to be associated with the BeingThere Centre because it marks a truly historic and remarkable collaboration among three world-class universities from Singapore, Switzerland and the USA. By combining our R&D capabilities, we can produce breakthrough applications for these advanced telepresence systems of the future.  NTU strongly advocates multi- and interdisciplinary research throughout our campus, and so we are very excited about this Centre because of the multi-national and multi-disciplinary collaborations it encourages. I am impressed by the Centre’s faculty, researchers and students, who have put in much creativity and insight to a research agenda that is truly interdisciplinary,” he added. 

The collaboration boasts a team of top scientists across three continents embarking on joint R&D projects to develop telepresence prototypes of the future. Altogether, 71 people – professors, researchers and PhD students – are working together at the Centre to bring these advanced telepresence systems to reality.  The parties will share the intellectual property and commercialisation benefits that arise from the joint research.

Mr Michael Yap, Executive Director of the Interactive Digital Media Programme Office at MDA said, “The essence of interactive digital media is to enhance human communication. Telepresence research is set to revolutionise human interaction across space, by creating the effect of ‘being there’ when one is physically not able to. This has the potential of transforming many sectors including travel and training, and is the type of innovative R&D that MDA is supporting at the BeingThere Centre. Harnessing the brightest minds from Singapore, Switzerland and the United States, BeingThere aims to achieve breakthroughs that will provide a competitive edge for our IDM industry.”

The centre is headed by three co-directors: Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann, Professor and Director, Institute for Media Innovation, NTU; Henry Fuchs, Federico Gil Distinguished Professor, UNC-Chapel Hill and Markus Gross, Professor and Director of the Computer Graphics Lab, ETH Zurich.

Professor Markus Gross, Co-Director of BeingThere Centre said, “The mission of the BeingThere Centre is to develop the technological framework and platform for the future of telepresence. Novel 3-dimensional display and capture technologies as well as advanced robotics and avatars will make it possible to convey an unprecedented sense of presence to the user. BeingThere will advance conventional location based services, but we are also devising new metaphors for making telepresence mobile and more physical. I am very delighted to see the technical progress we have achieved within the first year since its conception.”

Co-Director Professor Nadia Thalmann added, “Today there's a need for people to come and work together, no matter where we are in the world. The projects that we develop at the BeingThere Centre combine many advanced technologies together and extend the feeling of face-to-face communication seamlessly over distance, so that people feel as though they are together in a single place, even though they are in different countries. These advancements will take telepresence to a higher level of immersiveness. I anticipate that they will enable us to better understand each other, work more effectively, and make better informed decisions through the power of these state-of-the-art technologies.  I can also foresee many other potential applications, like remote learning and even healthcare delivery.”

Professor Henry Fuchs, Co-Director of BeingThere Centre, and Federico Gil Distinguished Professor at UNC Chapel Hill, said, “Telepresence technologies may one day be as commonplace as the personal computer and the mobile phone. These immersive meeting rooms, roving 3D displays, animatronic avatars, and autonomous virtual humans may soon be an integral part of our daily lives. They will reduce the time and expense of long-distance travel, enable more compelling long- distance education, training, health care, tourism and entertainment, and bring together families and friends from across the globe. Precisely how these technologies will develop no one can tell, but it's tremendously exciting to be at the forefront of this revolution. The three universities working together, leveraging each others' capabilities, will achieve much more than any one of us can do alone.”

These developments come at a time when telepresence is becoming a multi-billion dollar industry as broadband Internet networks and superfast computer chips enhance their capacity to transmit and process highly intensive data streams.  The latest global telepresence and videoconferencing equipment market forecasts estimate that the value of the telepresence, video infrastructure and endpoints market will reach $5.5 billion by 2016.


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Media contacts

Feisal Abdul Rahman
Senior Assistant Director (Media Relations)
Corporate Communications Office
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Tel: +65 6790 6687
Email: feisalar@ntu.edu.sg

Michelle Lim
Assistant Manager (Industry Communications)
Communications
Media Development Authority
DID: +65 81833947
Email: michelle_lim@mda.gov.sg 

Roman Klingler
Head, Media Relations
Corporate Communications
ETH Zurich, Switzerland
Tel: +41 44 632 40 39
Email: mediarelations@cc.ethz.ch

Kelli Gaskill
Communications Manager
Department of Computer Science
UNC-Chapel Hill, USA
Tel: 1-919-962-1790
Email: gaskill@cs.unc.edu


About Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

A research-intensive public university, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has 33,500 undergraduate and postgraduate students in the colleges of Engineering, Business, Science, and Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences.  In 2013, NTU will enrol the first batch of students at its new medical school, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, which is set up jointly with Imperial College London.

NTU is also home to four world-class autonomous institutes – the National Institute of Education, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Earth Observatory of Singapore, and Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering – and various leading research centres such as the Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute (NEWRI) and Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERI@N).

A fast-growing university with an international outlook, NTU is putting its global stamp on Five Peaks of Excellence: Sustainable Earth, Future Healthcare, New Media, New Silk Road, and Innovation Asia.

Besides the main Yunnan Garden campus, NTU also has a satellite campus in Singapore’s science and tech hub, one-north, and is setting up a third campus in Novena, Singapore’s medical district.
 
For more information, visit www.ntu.edu.sg.


About Media Development Authority, Singapore

The Media Development Authority of Singapore (www.mda.gov.sg) promotes the growth of globally competitive Animation, Broadcast, Film, Games, Interactive Media, Music and Publishing industries. It also regulates the media sector to safeguard the interest of consumers and promotes a connected society.

About Interactive Digital Media Program Office, Singapore

Led by the Media Development Authority of Singapore, the Interactive Digital Media Programme is funded by the National Research Foundation to provide Research and Developmental support for all IDM stakeholders including Individuals, Institutes of Higher Learning, Industry and Education.


About Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, Switzerland

ETH Zurich has come to symbolise excellent education, groundbreaking basic research and applied results that are beneficial for society as a whole. Founded in 1855, it today offers researchers an inspiring environment and students a comprehensive education as one of the world’s leading universities for technology and the natural sciences.

ETH Zurich has 16,000 students from approximately 80 countries, 3,400 of whom are doctoral candidates. Around 400 professors teach and conduct research in the areas of engineering, architecture, mathematics, natural sciences, system-oriented sciences, and management and social sciences. 21 Nobel Laureates have studied, taught or conducted research at ETH Zurich, underlining the excellent reputation of the institute.


About The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the United States’ first public university, is a leader in American higher education and known around the world for innovative teaching, research and public service. Now in its third century, Carolina offers 77 bachelor's, 109 master's, 66 doctorate and six professional degree programs. In fall 2011, the University enrolled more than 29,000 students, including 18,400 undergraduates, who are taught by a 3,500-member faculty.
 
The BeingThere Centre is an example of the type of research that supports the Innovate@Carolina Roadmap, UNC’s plan to help Carolina become a world leader in launching university-born ideas for the good of society. To learn more about the roadmap, visit innovate.unc.edu.

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