Turning it on for work meetings: is Avatar Kinect the new you?

Would you let this man chastise you for your work performance? sbisson/Flickr

New technology about to be released by Microsoft has the potential to revolutionise workplace meetings, removing the need to “be” anywhere for those all-important face-to-face encounters.

If you believe the hype, Microsoft’s Avatar Kinect system for the Xbox 360 will bring people together in a way that – even in the age of Skype and video calls – seems in the realms of science fiction.

As someone who often has to travel to meetings around the world (in my role as a Network Systems researcher at NICTA) this new technology has piqued my interest.

Last year I flew from Australia to Brussels and back to attend a one-hour meeting: 40 hours in the air and tons of CO2 for an ultimately unsuccessful get-together.

Clearly an inefficient use of time and energy, but still deemed necessary. Why? Because existing video-conferencing set-ups fall short for important face-to-face interaction.

An emerging solution

The Avatar Kinect system was the subject of a recent lecture delivered by Craig Mundie – chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft.

It uses sensors within Microsoft’s 3D motion-capture Kinect system to control digital representations (known as avatars of users.

The software takes your movements and uses them to animate your avatar: if you wave your hands, your avatar waves its hands. If you smile or frown, your avatar smiles or frowns.

Many great applications for the Kinect have already been discovered, but it’s in the realm of video-conferencing and collaborative working environments that it could become a real game changer.

Animating you avatar

Instead of seeing video of all the other participants in a video conference, the Avatar Kinect will allow you to see the avatars of the other people.

The use of personal avatars – as opposed to the streaming of high resolution video of each participant – is one of the key benefits of this technology.

The process of transmitting multiple video streams (each of which contains millions of pixels, changing every second) to multiple participants is extremely taxing on communications infrastructure.

Even more problematic is the challenge of getting everyone around a single virtual table. Five windows on your screen showing participants in rooms of different sizes and with different lighting is a very poor substitute; while more “natural” systems, such as HP’s Halo, are quite expensive and restricted to specially-designed rooms.

The Avatar Kinect converts people’s gestures into a simple set of instructions which the Xbox at each user’s location turns into a scene populated by avatars. You don’t have to worry if your hair is right (although picking your nose is still a no-no).

In this way, companies needn’t spend tens of thousands of dollars on video conferencing software in multiple locations. Buying an Xbox and Kinect at each location be would be significantly cheaper, and might do wonders for employee morale.

Getting the basics right

As is the case in phone conferences, audio is the primary information channel in Avatar Kinect conferences. Video, in the form of your avatar’s movements, provides the “emotional subtext” – gestures such as waving hands, crossed arms, eye contact, staring at the ceiling, frowning, smiling.

These gestures form an important part of communication, and our eyes are very capable of extracting such cues from an animated scene.

Many of us know the importance of non-verbal cues, the different personality types and how this influences meetings.

A software-driven “facilitator” avatar, “asked” to join the meeting, could pick up on negative gestures (looking around the room in a disinterested fashion, for example) or speech patterns and provide suitable alerts to keep the meeting on track.

NICTA’s BrainGauge technology is one example of technology that can do just this, measuring a user’s cognitive load and stress level just by analysing their speech patterns.

Whether or not Microsoft’s Avatar Kinect will take the leap from social networking toy and gaming peripheral to business communication platform is yet to be seen.

But any technology that means I don’t have to travel for 40 hours for a one-hour meeting is worth keeping an eye on.

Would you send an avatar to a meeting in your absence? Leave your thoughts below.

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