In Apple’s TV commercials for FaceTime, long-distance couples laugh, cry, and smile adoringly as they video chat on their iPads and iPhones. They’re carrying on meaningful conversations, but something’s missing. They’re not talking to each other in the conventional, human sense. With FaceTime, you can't look into the camera and make eye contact with the person you're talking to. It ends up as an awkward dance, with your glance darting back and forth between camera and screen. Without any eye contact, there’s a greater sense of distance, and perhaps even some distrust that your chat buddy isn’t focusing entirely on you.
The device looks straight out of SkyMall magazine, but it actually works
Prompt Video on Wednesday launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to raise money for eTeleporter, a plastic housing for iPad that uses mirrors to simulate eye contact and make video calling a bit more personable. The device is total sci-fi cheesiness and looks straight out of SkyMall magazine, but it actually works — assuming both you and your video chat partner have one. A prototype version we’ve tested very accurately created the illusion of eye contact and made video chatting a lot more engaging. It works a lot like a teleprompter, but with some added tech, since reflecting images accurately is more complicated than reflecting text from a speech or lines from a news story. All you do is slide an upright iPad into the eTeleporter, at which point the iPad’s camera aligns behind the center of a mirror. Then, you start a video chat using FaceTime or Skype. Some residual quality is lost in the mirroring process, but arguably not as much as you lose by eliminating all eye contact with your partner.
Prompt Video’s Hernan Giraldo, whose day job is Vice President of National Sales for Alcatel-Lucent, has been toying with the idea of better video chatting for years. Giraldo was part of the first team to perform a mobile video call several years ago (a collaboration between Nokia and France Telecom), but it didn’t take off because plans were too expensive. Years later, he rediscovered his fascination with video chatting. "We did a study and found out that 57 percent of people said they while they’re doing an audio conference, they’re actually doing something else," he says. Plus, "93 percent of human communication is non-verbal," says Giraldo, and "55 percent is totally visual."
The first step to building his vision of video chatting, he says, was admitting that he needed to focus on stationary devices and not "mobile" devices. "We learned that video chat was going to be wireless, but never going to be mobile," says Giraldo. "Nobody is going to be walking down the street holding up their hand. We’re not wired that way." The second step — the hard part — was figuring out how to simulate eye contact between video chatters, which Giraldo thought was sorely missing from most video chat solutions.
"93 percent of human communication is non-verbal, and 55 percent is totally visual."
He and his team hired a PhD in optical sciences to help construct the device, which, like a teleprompter, use light waves coming from two directions that don’t interfere as they pass each other. There’s also a touch of "black magic" behind the scenes, as Giraldo says, to limit phantoming (excessive blur), aberration (frame edge distortion), and excessive glare. The final result is a great magic trick wrapped in a big plastic package. Plus, the device ships with software that lets it act as an actual teleprompter, which means you can now make eye contact with your audience while voicing your relevant pre-scripted opinions on YouTube.
Assuming the device meets its funding goal of $100,000 on Kickstarter, you’ll be able to buy one around Christmas time for between one and two hundred dollars. Kickstarter backers will receive the device sooner for $99.99. While the eTeleporter looks gimmicky, it’s inexpensive, easy to use, and reasonably unobtrusive. Until Apple and Samsung figure out how to embed cameras into LED screens, the eTeleporter could be the next best thing for long distance chatters.