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Webcams Grow Up: Personify and PanaCast Enhance Video Chats

The future of videoconferencing looks bright, with "floating heads" and panoramic views. But it's going to cost you.

K Quin Paek for Re/code

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

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 quite different; rather, it’s an introduction to smart, practical technologies that could change the way we videoconference. Neither of these is without limitations, but they offer 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. 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 toys, or the, uh, bathroom walls (admit it).

Second, a floating bust takes up a lot less real estate on your computer screen than a video chat window, freeing up space for you to continue working on other things, or to share your screen without feeling squeezed.

Personify

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 scenario during video calls to relatives at holiday dinners.

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

On one hand, the floating head thing looks really 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 bigger 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 hand, video feeds froze on a few occasions, and audio occasionally 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 (double groan). Generally speaking, 3-D cameras are only found built into big, high-end computers, like the honkin’ $1,100 Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 15 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.

Currently, 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, though the latter is harder 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 video shots, I found the video quality to be remarkably crisp, without the horizontal facial distortion I often see in panoramic photos. Audio sounded clear, and neither video nor audio had any dropouts or stuttering. As advertised, I could easily see a panoramic view of the other participants on a PanaCast call.

Most of my video calls are one-to-one personal calls rather than video 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 nearly $1,000 price tag. And its optional PanaCast Experience 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 video, but this setup costs around $5,000, plus the monthly fee for this Skype service.

PanaCast plugs into USB 2.0 and 3.0 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 Experience 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 barely 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 change your videoconferencing life tomorrow. But one thing is for sure: Your video calls stand a good chance of becoming a lot more accommodating and high-tech in the near future.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.