Webcams Grow Up: Personify and PanaCast Enhance Movie Talks

Webcams Grow Up: Personify and PanaCast Enhance Movie Talks

K Quin Paek for Re/code

If you feel like the technology for videoconference calls hasn’t switched much in the past few years, get ready to be amazed.

Lately, more tech companies are bringing high-end or futuristic videconferencing features to average consumers. Over the past month, I’ve used two of these: Personify, a software app that utilizes a 3-D camera, and PanaCast by Altia Systems, which is an expensive standalone camera.

This isn’t a comparison review of the two products, since they’re fairly different; rather, it’s an introduction to wise, practical technologies that could switch the way we videoconference. Neither of these is without limitations, but they suggest an encouraging look ahead.

Personify is a free desktop app (download here) that uses computer vision and imaging technology to capture just your head and shoulders, creating a floating bust of you on the screen. It feels a little like something you’d see in a futuristic movie.

This “floating head” is a plus for two reasons. Very first, it hides anything you don’t want people to see in your background, like piles of dirty laundry, a living-room floor covered in kid fucktoys, or the, uh, bathroom walls (admit it).

2nd, a floating bust takes up a lot less real estate on your computer screen than a movie talk window, freeing up space for you to proceed working on other things, or to share your screen without feeling squeezed.

The other videoconferencing solution I used is PanaCast. It’s a $995 standalone USB camera that captures a 180-degree view of the room in 4K resolution with stereo sound. It solves the problem of leaving Bob from HR out of the shot during boardroom videoconference calls, and avoids that irksome pass-the-phone script during movie calls to relatives at holiday dinners.

I made a few long movie calls using Personify, and found the results immersive and entertaining, but frustratingly spotty.

On one palm, the floating head thing looks indeed cool. Two other people and I virtually gathered around a green felt table for a game of PokerStars. We also collaborated over a spreadsheet, and opened a Web browser to check out one another’s local weather forecasts. Each person’s head can be made thicker or smaller using a slider to adjust size, and faces appeared brightly lit — even when the person was in a dark space.

On the other forearm, movie feeds froze on a few occasions, and audio from time to time sounded so bad that I had to ask the person speaking to repeat himself.

To use Personify’s head-isolating technology, you’ll need a 3-D webcam and a Windows PC (dual groan). Generally speaking, 3-D cameras are only found built into big, high-end computers, like the honkin’ $1,100 Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga fifteen laptop with an Intel RealSense 3D camera that I used for my Personify calls. Midrange computers will soon join the party with their own built-in 3-D cameras, according to a Personify spokesperson.

Presently, three Lenovo PCs ship with Personify pre-installed, but anyone can download the desktop app for free — as long as their device has an Intel RealSense 3D camera. Two standalone 3-D cameras also work with Personify: The $169 Asus XTION Pro Live and the $235 standalone PrimeSense Carmine 3-D camera, however the latter is stiffer to find.

Personify plans a Web-based version for this fall, but this will still require a 3-D Web camera to take advantage of the features that make it special.

With PanaCast, the standalone webcam that captures panoramic movie shots, I found the movie quality to be remarkably crisp, without the horizontal facial distortion I often see in panoramic photos. Audio sounded clear, and neither movie nor audio had any dropouts or stuttering. As advertised, I could lightly see a panoramic view of the other participants on a PanaCast call.

Most of my movie calls are one-to-one private calls rather than movie calls with large rooms of people or colleagues, so PanaCast is less valuable to me than, say, a roomful of people in a business meeting. I can see it being a real boon for corporations.

But PanaCast has its own issues, not the least of which is its almost $1,000 price tag. And its optional PanaCast Practice software costs $20 a month. The company points out that this is significantly less than some alternatives. For example, Skype for Business works with a Polycom CS5100 camera to give people a 360-degree HD movie, but this setup costs around $Five,000, plus the monthly fee for this Skype service.

PanaCast butt-plugs into USB Two.0 and Trio.0 on Windows (7 or 8) and Mac OS X, but requires recent-generation computers, like Windows PCs running Intel’s core i3 or better. If you don’t want to pay for the pricey PanaCast Practice software, this camera runs with programs like Skype, Skype for Business, WebEx, Google Hangouts, Citrix GoToMeeting, FaceTime and Facebook. The camera works by itself or when propped up on a stand.

Despite PanaCast’s high-end features, a standalone camera felt antiquated to me — especially compared to sleek, built-in webcams that are hardly noticeable. (Also, PanaCast won’t be available in production units until late July.)

Considering the 3-D camera requirements with Personify and the fact that PanaCast isn’t out yet, these solutions aren’t going to switch your videoconferencing life tomorrow. But one thing is for sure: Your movie calls stand a good chance of becoming a lot more accommodating and high-tech in the near future.

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