View Full Version : [Contest Entry] Porta-Person

08-16-2007, 07:10 PM
What is it?

A remote controlled telepresence device.

OK...but what is it really?

We wanted to improve the meeting experience for remote people participating in meetings in conference rooms. In our company, we discovered that 70% of distributed meetings involved a conference room and 60% had a single conference room with one or more people calling into the meeting. Remote attendees reported a significantly less effective meeting experience than people who were physically in the room. In other words, the people in the room were quite happy and remote people felt like second class citizens. Among the problems reported by remote meeting attendees were:
difficulty hearing everyone in the conference room clearly
having trouble breaking into lively conversations
not being able to identify who was speaking in the conference roomBoth sides (local and remote) felt that the other side was ignoring them. Local attendees felt that that the remote attendees were not fully engaged in the meeting and had a harder time relating to them since they were not physically there.

OK. I get it, but *what* is it?

Here's a picture of our 3rd generation Porta-Person:


The simplest way to think of a Porta-Person is that it's a surrogate for the remote person. It has ears (stereo microphones: they look like golf balls), a mouth (mounted on the front: it's stereo too!), an eye (a video camera mounted on a telescoping mount) and a face (a "Face Tool" application running on the laptop.) The Porta-Person gets a place at the conference room table, either on the table or on a portable table. The remote person sees and hears the people in the room and can be seen and heard.

So big deal. It's just video conferencing, right?

Well, not quite. There are a number of important features that differentiate the Porta-Person from conventional video conferencing:
by giving remote attendees a physical presence at the table, this gives them equal status to people who are seated at the table. It's easier to ignore a video of a distant conference room displayed on a wall or a monitor.
the Porta-Person supports high-fidelity stereo audio (from phone quality all the way up to CD quality) and uses sensitive microphones. Remote attendees hear the audio in the room just as if they were there. One person reported looking for his phone in his office when a phone rang in the conference room! The audio quality enables people to clearly hear everyone in the room. You can hear a pen drop.
the Porta-Person turns! When a remote person wants to address a person in the room, they can turn the Porta-Person by remote control to face them. The motion of the device attracts attention. The video camera allows the remote person to see the reaction of the person they're talking to, just as if they were there.
unlike video conferencing, you don't need video to use the Porta-Person. If you don't have a webcam or the bandwidth to stream video to the Porta-Person you can have an animated cartoon representation displayed on the device instead:
the cartoon blinks, breathes, and the mouth moves when you talk.
Unlike video conferencing rooms you don't need special video conference equipment (though, ummm, you do need a Porta-Person.)Errr...robotics?

I was getting to that. The Porta-Person comprises a base unit which houses the stereo echo canceler, network hub and USB audio hub. The base unit is a mini-ITX case. In later versions we'd like to replace the laptop with a mini-ITX computer in the base. On top of the base is a "lazy susan" (or turntable) and a Futaba R/C servo motor (hey! robotics finally!) Attached to the servo motor and standing on 35mm film canisters is a laptop platform. The speakers, microphones and webcam are mounted on this. The servo motor can turn the platform through about 130 degrees. The servo is connected to a Phidget Servo-1 Controller (http://www.trossenrobotics.com/store/p/3187-Servo-1-Motor-Controller.aspx). This is controlled by our Java based meeting software through Java Native Interfaces.

Is that it?

Not quite. The remote user experience is also kind of interesting. The camera has a narrow field of view, about 40 degrees, which is nothing like the human eye. Looking at a 40 degree view of the conference room isn't really like being there. So we build a panorama of the conference room. Here's one:

Conference room panorama image (http://research.sun.com/projects/mc/images/panorama-meeting.png)

As the camera moves, it takes snapshots of the area it's pointing at and stitches these together into a panorama. It uses alpha blending to edge-blend the snapshots together. In the panorama, the red box shows where the Porta-Person is pointing and displays live video. A remote attendee can click on a person they want to talk to and the Porta-Person will turn to face them. Anyone can add labels to the panorama to identify people.

Anything else you want to tell us?


We wanted to make it easy to build a Porta-Person. My original goal was to make it possible to assemble with minimal mechanical and electronics skills, and from "off-the-web" parts. It turned out to require a bit more than minimal skill and it's not as cheap as we'd have liked. But, it is made entirely out of parts which can be ordered off the web.

Can I buy one?

No. This is a research device, not a commercial product. This isn't a product pitch and no sales person will call you during dinner tonight.

What's next?

We have some people playing around with Roombas. Imagine being able to drive the Porta-Person around the conference room table! We're also working on integrating the Porta-Person with our MPK20 Virtual Workplace (http://research.sun.com/projects/mc/mpk20.html).

And finally...

This project was really made possible because of the Phidget Servo Controller (http://www.trossenrobotics.com/store/p/3187-Servo-1-Motor-Controller.aspx) and the Java interfaces. That made the robotics part of the project very easy.

More about the Porta-Person. (http://research.sun.com/projects/mc/porta-person.html)

Disclaimer: I work for Sun Microsystems Labs and the project was developed and funded by Sun. Any opinions here are my own and may not reflect my employer's point of view.

Nigel Simpson
Sun Microsystems Labs
Burlington, MA 01803 USA
[email protected]

08-22-2007, 10:16 AM
Excellent work Nigel:D I can see this helping out many companies. Could you please thumbnail the panoramic picture though? It makes it a bit hard to read your post.

Thanks for the submission!

08-23-2007, 11:55 AM
I'm not sure how to include HTML in the editor. What I want to insert is:

<a href="http://research.sun.com/projects/mc/images/panorama-meeting.png"><img src="http://research.sun.com/projects/mc/images/panorama-meeting.png" height="150"/></a>

I've converted the panorama image into a link since I don't have a public thumbnail.

08-27-2007, 12:22 PM
Thanks for the correction, everything looks great now:D!

HTML is purposely disabled in the forums to prevent malicious activity.

EDIT: Allright, what I originally tried didn't work, haha! Let me find out why...

EDIT: Okay, I figured out why thumbnails were not working. Sorry, this was our fault. We didn't have thumbnails enabled for .png files, only for all other images. Everything should be fine now. The only bummer is that you cannot add a thumbnail any place in your post that you would like. You can only attach a file, then, it will create a thumbnail for you at the end of the post such as in my post below.

08-28-2007, 12:34 AM
Thanks for working on this issue, Alex. I think with the link and the thumbnail you added with your post, people will find their way to the panorama image. It's a pity the "Insert Image" button isn't more flexible (e.g., allowing you to specify attributes such as size.)

08-28-2007, 09:38 AM
Hey Nigel, not a problem! I'm glad that we were able to "somewhat" resolve the issue:)