Wanadoo goes big in virtual reality

The R&D unit of France Telecom – parent of UK subsidiaries Wanadoo and Orange – is investing heavily in virtual reality technologies that will drive bandwidth-intensive services of the future.

The prospects for virtual reality may seem to have disappeared over the horizon in the last few years, but France Telecom has been beavering away on a number of projects, some of which are already on the marketplace.

Perhaps the biggest wow factor belongs to Quintesens: a fully sensual environment that delivers 3D, spatial sound, a degree of olfactory awareness, and haptic (tactile) means of interaction. This latter involves a pen-like input device attached to an arm that can deliver physical sensations of weight, momentum and so on.

The real-life application envisaged for Quintesens is for heritage and tourism online services. Other predicted uses include providing remote diagnostic tools for the medical industry.

A demonstration terminal showed an ornate pedestal in the courtyard of a chateau onto which you could lift various fruits. The haptic input device successfully portrayed the different ‘weights’ of the fruit and allowed you to interact with the environment, swinging them from side to side and throwing them across the courtyard.

A pair of eyeglasses provided 3D effects, and the ‘smell’ sensations came courtesy of a stack of dispensers looking not unlike the neck vertebrae of a large mammal, although the large room meant it was difficult to tell the effectiveness of this set up because the scents produced dissipated so quickly.

Quintesens is expected to go into commercial production in one or two years.

Commercially closer, a set of eyeglasses for the Samsung D600 mobile phone is to be launched in November, with the phone going on sale in October.

The Video Goggles present the user with a small screen that can be used to view images and video. They are specifically designed not to be immersive. France Telecom said that its research found that users felt vulnerable in public spaces when in an immersive virtual environment and had worries such as being robbed.

However, executives said that future versions might include a screen that sits in the upper half of the user’s vision without obstructing the view, and could overlay live driving directions, for example.

Finally, France Telecom’s REALMEET is already available, albeit at a somewhat steep price. Videoconferencing is nothing new, and people have been able to link up webcams across the Internet for many years now. REALMEET takes the technology as a given and concentrates on the user-friendliness of that experience.

Lifesize screens and six microphones offering spatial sound make using the facility a natural experience. At nearly 1:1 scale those with whom participants are communicating look as if they are just across the table whereas they could be anywhere in the world. And the spatial sound helps locate each speaker around the table.

But it’s expensive. France Telecom’s current customers include Swiss banks that are more concerned with the finish of the woodwork than the price, which can range from €15,000 to ten times that. And once you’ve installed one in the first location, you need others in every location you want to link in to the service.

However, executives pointed out that the system creates massive cost and time savings in not having to transport staff across the world for meetings, as well as avoiding the environmental impact associated with travel.

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