Surround Vision Hopes to Change TV Viewing Experience

Santiago Alfaro hopes to one day use the Surround Vision technology he created at the MIT Media Lab and work with famous director James Cameron to incorporate it into a film.

"The best way I think of it is that your TV is not a screen but a window," said Alfaro. "What we're doing is giving a handheld window that you can actually follow people or see what else is going on."

For a video report on Surround Vision click here.

After a year of work at the lab, the project is still a prototype. To demonstrate it, Alfaro played a street scene on a large television screen. He held up a Samsung UMPC (ultra mobile personal computer) in front of the TV screen and both devices displayed the same image. But when he moved the Samsung device to the left or right, the scene continued on the UMPC and he could see a bus parked up the street that wasn't displayed on the larger TV screen.

Alfaro developed Surround Vision using C++, OpenGL and an Arduino board with accelerometers and a magnetometer, or compass. While the prototype is bulky, he hopes that with further development it could be slimmed down. He imagines that it could be easily incorporated into smartphones, since they already have the sensors built in.

"So the accelerometer is very good for quick movements [by the user], just like a Wii Remote, but it's not good enough for a slow exploring movement," he said, noting a magnetometer handles slow-motion movement much better.

Another benefit to a cell phone, he said, is that the phone's camera could be used as a calibration system. Whenever the camera sees the main television screen, it could automatically calibrate.

The ubiquity of smartphones means that it would be much easier for users to engage in the Surround Vision experience than if they were using a more specialized device.

Alfaro said that one of the challenges for him was learning computer programming. With an industrial design degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, the world of programming was new for him. The challenge of programming, while no small task, showed when the small screen's device skipped around and was temperamental for a few minutes during the demonstration.

Another problem is that there isn't any content for Surround Vision other than a few test videos. Alfaro thinks that anything that is shot with multiple cameras, like a sporting event or concert, would be prime for his creation.

"[It could be used for] concerts, where people can just sit and relax and listen to the music, but still try to explore around the theater as if they were in the live performance," said the curly-haired Alfaro in his native Colombian accent.

Alfaro said that broadcasting company PBS has expressed interest in the project. He mentioned that the children's show "Blues Clues" could develop content for Surround Vision and give children the chance to explore content that isn't traditionally shown on the main television screen. "That way kids could have a way of exploring around the TV and looking for clues around the rooms."

He said that game company Hasbro and home and beauty products company Proctor & Gamble have also expressed interest. Alfaro still needs to work the bugs out of the project, so there are no immediate commercialization plans.

He hopes that one day a movie director could create big-screen content for the small, handheld device.

"If they can think about a story through many different cameras and many different screens, then that would actually change, a little bit, the way we experience storytelling."

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