That's the theory behind a forthcoming gadget called the PanaCast, a panoramic camera designed to be set at eye level atop a conference table tripod. The device includes digital processing software that allows remote participants to pan and zoom through the scene it captures without the camera actually needing to move. The client software, which will be available for smartphones and tablets as well as PCs, allows each viewer to manipulate the scene independently of other participants. "It works the way people work in in-person meetings, where you're able to look around and use your peripheral vision," said Aurangzeb Khan, co-founder, president and CEO of Altia Systems, which developed the PanaCast.
This is a low-budget way of achieving the "just-like-being-there" experience promised by high-end videoconferencing and telepresence systems, some of which use multiple cameras and multiple large monitors to provide a panoramic view. "We're doing it in a totally different way," Kahn said. "Those systems are typically $30K to $100K. We are trying to replicate that experience, but make it ubiquitously available on a mobile device. You don't need special cameras, a special room, or special paint on the wall, but you can be zooming and panning across a live feed."
Altia says the PanaCast will ship in the first quarter of 2013 at a price of less than $700. The company is also offering a 25% discount for early adopters who place advance orders through Kickstarter.
Altia says the technical breakthroughs behind the PanaCast include very low-latency digital processing, in which the video stream is assembled from the sum of the feeds of the six cameras spaced around the disk-shaped unit into a 200 degree-wide image. The video is then transmitted without ever being stored on the device and received by the PC or mobile client in a form that supports panning and zooming. Setup is as simple as plugging the device into an Internet connection and sending remote participants a link and a PIN code for access, according to Altia.
PanaCast panoramic video camera.
"There's a wide gap between webcams or built-in cameras on smartphones or laptops and systems sold into business by companies such as LifeSize," said Ross Rubin, a principal analyst at Reticle Research who covers consumer technologies. "The opportunity is to address a range of office situations and conference room situations where there's an interest in remote videoconferencing capability but an unwillingness to invest in dedicated lines, higher-end equipment." He added, "If you put this at the end of the table, it's almost like a fourth-wall situation. The ideal way to use this product is to put people in a semicircle or on one end of the table, where the ultra-wide viewing angle allows the camera to capture a great deal of horizontal detail."
The comparison with telepresence is not exact, in the sense that high-end videoconferencing suites for executives are typically mirrored on both ends of the connection. Some beta users of the PanaCast have used the devices on both ends of a call, but the more typical scenario is that a conference room full of participants who are broadcasting a feed to home or traveling workers who aren't able to join the meeting in person. In that way, it's more like the video equivalent of the multidirectional conference room speaker phones that Polycom built its reputation on.
One early fan of the PanaCast is Bob Hagerty, former chairman and CEO of Polycom and current president and CEO of iControl Networks. "The PanaCast experience is a game changer," Hagerty said in a prepared statement. "The unique human panoramic perspective for video users is outstanding -- this technology significantly changes the user experience and will transform ease-of-use for unified communications and other markets."
In addition to videoconferencing, Altia sees other applications, such as sports photography and entertainment. One video on its website shows it being used by a skydiving team and to broadcast a concert. But since capturing a video recording is so easy compared with doing it in real time, videoconferencing is the application Altia engineers are most eager to tout.
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