It is circa 2020, a tele-mentoring session is in progress, wherein a veteran surgeon in New Delhi is step-by-step guiding a less experienced surgeon thousands of kilometres away in London. Both surgeons share the view of the surgical field and control of the robotic system and can talk using microphones. Your brain tumor has to be removed via surgery immediately. However, no senior surgeon is available in the London branch of the hospital. Tele-immersion allows dissection without the need of the senior surgeon even touching the tumor. The operation is successful and your life is saved.

Fig. 1: Virtual train tracks as seen in EVL’s CAVE2 (Source: www.evl.uic.edu)
Fig. 1: Virtual train tracks as seen in EVL’s CAVE2 (Source: www.evl.uic.edu)

A few weeks later, you schedule a very important meeting with your business associates in Bengaluru. However, you have visitors coming in from New York to sign a mega business deal the same day. Without any stress, you go to a room called holodeck. There, inside a simulated environment, using information technology you contact your business associates. You are able to conduct the meeting with them almost as if you are in Bengaluru. You even manage to shake hands with holographic images of your business associates. With a smile on your face you proceed to receive your guests from New York.

What is tele-immersion all about
Electronic visualisation laboratory (EVL), University of Illinois, defines tele-immersion as the union of networked virtual reality and video in the context of significant computing and data mining.

Tele-immersion is a technology to be implemented with the Internet2 that will enable users in different geographic locations to come together in a simulated holographic environment to interact. To users, it would appear as if they are actually interacting, communicating and meeting each other in person at a common location. In a tele-immersive environment, computers recognise the presence and movements of individuals as well as physical and virtual objects. These can then track living and non-living objects and project them in a realistic manner across many geographic locations. Holographic environments are generated by advanced computers that work at computing speeds thousands of times faster than PCs we use every day.

Three simple steps required to construct a holographic environment are:
1. The computer recognises the presence and movements of people and objects.
2. Then, it tracks those images.
3. Finally, it projects those images on a stereo-immersive surface.

The 3D reconstruction for tele-immersion is facilitated by projecting images on a stereo-immersive surface using IT. Two or more cameras take rapid sequential shots of the same object, continuously performing distance calculations and projecting those into the computer-simulated environment, to replicate real-time movement. By mixing cameras and the Internet telephony, videoconferencing allows real-time exchange of a vast amount of information effectively, without the need of the physical presence of every person in one central room.

The history
Ivan Sutherland, the great computer graphics pioneer, proposed the concept of Ultimate Display in 1965. It described a graphics display that allowed the user to experience a completely computer-rendered environment. In late 1960s, the ARPANET, conceived by the US Department of Defence, gradually evolved into the Internet. In 1998, Abilene, a backbone-research project was launched for the Internet2 research. The Internet2 needed an application that would challenge and stretch its networks capabilities. The head of Advanced Network and Services Inc. proposed tele-immersion as the application to drive forward the Internet2 research. Thus, the National Tele-immersion Initiative was formed.

Fig. 2: A tele-immersive session in progress (Source: www.advanced.org/tele-immersion/news.html)
Fig. 2: A tele-immersive session in progress (Source: www.advanced.org/tele-immersion/news.html)

The new broadband version of the Internet is capable of transmitting high volumes of data. Tele-immersion is the only application that can push it to its boundaries. In May 2000, researchers at University of North Carolina (UNC), University of Pennsylvania and Advanced Networks and Services Inc. reached a milestone in developing this technology. A user sitting in an office at UNC in Chapel Hill, NC, was able to see life-like, 3D images of colleagues hundreds of kilometres away.

Elements of a holographic environment
Initial tele-immersive displays required users to put on unique goggles and a head device that tracked viewpoints of users looking at the screen. On the other end, people who appeared as 3D images were being tracked with an array of eight ordinary video cameras, while three other video cameras captured real light patterns projected in each room to calculate distances. This enabled proper depth to be recreated on the screen. Hence, if an observer moved his head to the left, he or she could see corresponding images that would be seen if he or she was actually in the room with the person on the screen.

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