For David Stotts, computing needs a new face: yours. He’d like to hook you up to a partner miles or continents away, pipe live video of each of you onto the same computer desktop, and let you hash out your ideas, pointing to work on the screen, hearing each other’s voices, and watching each other react.
The invention that could make all this possible is Facetop, software that adds some smoke and mirrors to a standard Macintosh computer. The key is transparency, which is wired into today’s high-performance graphics hardware. By tapping that capacity and the human brain’s ability to organize visual patterns, Stotts and his team found a way to let you peer through transparent images of yourself and your partner at the same time you’re watching your work on the screen. (If you’ve ever looked through your reflection in a pond and noticed a fish swimming under the surface, you’ll have the idea.)
The breakthrough occurred, as it often does in science, because of a student.
Jason Smith, who is working on a Ph.D. in software semantics, walked into Stotts’ office in Sitterson Hall one day to talk about a project. Stotts, associate professor of computer science, had been fiddling with a new video camera, pointing it at himself so that it cast a mirror-image view. As they worked, Stotts loaded Smith’s work onto the computer and projected it onto the wall. They began to talk.
“I lifted my hand so that the image of me on the screen was pointing at the thing I thought he was talking about,” Stotts says. “And Jason looks at me and says, oooh…”
That was the moment David Stotts and Jason Smith became inventors. They even had a market in mind. For a couple of years, Stotts had been studying ways to improve pair programming — the increasingly popular method of using two people working side-by-side to write computer code. Stotts says that studies have shown that this system is faster and less error prone than working solo. Stotts had been experimenting with a form of pair programming in which the programmers work together over the Internet.
“When we’d interview these people, invariably they would say, ‘This works well, I enjoyed it, but I really want to point at stuff, and I really miss seeing facial expressions of the person I’m working with,’ Stotts says.
So when Smith and Stotts had their eureka moment, they knew that pair programmers were potential users. But then all kinds of people began taking notice — architects who wanted to meet over drawings, chemists developing new compounds in distant laboratories, and doctors inspecting medical images.
The team is working with Carolina’s Office of Technology Development to protect the invention and investigate its business potential. Meanwhile, Stotts and the team, including Carl Gilstrom in the lab, are fine-tuning the software and waiting for the next generation of Microsoft Windows, which may include code that will enable Facetop to run on PCs as well as on Macs.
If all goes well, you may soon find a partner gazing back from your desktop — far away but facing you.