Meet the SPIRIT Partners: a combined interview with the researchers of the University of Klagenfurt.

Q: Tell us more about the University of Klagenfurt and its contribution in the SPIRIT project. 

Hermann: The University of Klagenfurt is a small university located in southern Austria, close to the Slovenian and Italian border. Counting approximately 11,000 students, we are very active both in teaching and research, specifically in the technical areas such as computing science, information technology, information and communication engineering, mathematics with all types of applications. In the latest years, we have gained quite some visibility in the international research community thanks to our work in video streaming and contributions to standards like the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), most importantly to MPEG-DASH.

As researchers of the University of Klagenfurt’s Department of Information Technology, we support SPIRIT’s technical innovation, beginning with the definition of requirements and architecture. Our action will primarily concentrate on two topics: real-time communication of telepresence content, and quality of experience evaluation. We will also assist Open call participants and lead the consortium’s standardisation activities.

Q: What drew your research university to take part in a Horizon Europe Innovation Action? What are the specific challenges that motivated you to join SPIRIT?

Hermann: As someone who was involved in SPIRIT since the very beginning, from proposal writing to the project launch, I have three parts of answers for both questions. Why are we taking part in this innovation action? Firstly, because this project, which aims to get closer to the concept of immersive telepresence, is both exciting and challenging.

Secondly, because it requires an interesting combination of research work and innovation activities such as integrating available technologies, harmonising our own systems with the overall platform, supporting the Open call activities. 

The consortium is the third factor that drew us to participate in SPIRIT. We have a fantastic consortium that includes some partners I know quite well and consider friends after several collaborations in previous projects, particularly colleagues from the Ghent University and the University of Surrey. There are also new partners coming from leading industry in real-time communication. Finally, there is Digital for Planet, a very active media and communication partner. This, I believe, creates a very exciting environment, which prompted us to join the SPIRIT project. 

Within SPIRIT, we will address several challenges, including the management of large amounts of data. If we have these telepresence goals, how do we represent people or objects and communicate large amounts of data in real time with very low latency from one end to the other and from partner to partner or multiple partners in a videoconferencing setting? This extremely low-latency communication is quite novel for us. We’ve been doing video streaming for decades, but without such low latency requirements. 

The second challenge that we foresee – which is quite new for immersive content, I would say – is the quality of experience and usability evaluation. We need to develop metrics, tools, potentially subjective tests, and more.

The third challenge is the Open calls. As a consortium, we will provide a platform for others to use for new experiments and use cases, while also supporting these third parties who will join the project after only a year. This is exciting and challenging, and there is a lot of motivation to contribute to the project.

Shivi: Personally, I’ve always been interested in mixed reality forms of media, such as virtual and augmented reality, with a focus on virtual reality and 360 degrees in my previous research. Now I’m looking forward to working on augmented reality and holograms.

Minh: I believe that the immersive presence is very new to older generations as well as to end users. So, the question is, what do users expect and feel when they experience and watch the immersive video? I am eager to discover how to evaluate the usability and the quality of experience for the end users. 

Q: Which specific technical goals and work will the University of Klagenfurt contribute to? 

Hermann: Our contributions to SPIRIT will target four major tasks. To begin, we will help define the requirements and design the architecture, which is the overall platform that the project will develop and make available to third parties, as almost all partners do. This is a component of Work Package 2     . 

Our technical contribution in SPIRIT will involve two aspects related to communication and usability. 

Firstly, in Work Package 3, we will address application layer innovation, which is concerned with combining what we have and what we know from video streaming: DASH available in a low-latency version, combined with Web Real-Time Communication (WebRTC), a specific technology that allows real-time interaction among video conferencing’s participants – such as in any current Zoom call. The integration of these technologies is an example of what I meant earlier: it necessitates basic research as well as innovation.

Secondly, in Work Package 4, we will work on user experience evaluation, which is relatively new in the field of immersive telepresence. This is why we need to develop new metrics to assess the quality – and lack thereof – of an immersive telepresence person’s user experience, as well as appropriate tools and assessments for the SPIRIT platform.

We will eventually present our findings to standardisation bodies. We will focus as a partner on MPEG, which is a part  of the ISO/IEC standardisation body and bring those immersive elements to the respective corners of MPEG (MPEG-I). As part of  Work Package 6, we will also lead and coordinate the entire consortium’s standardisation efforts.

Overall, we are involved in four Work Packages in addition to our participation in the SPIRIT Open calls, which will necessitate our assistance to the Open call winners and partners in order to further develop the SPIRIT platform.

Q: Do you think that, at the end of the project, we will have a truly immersive telepresence system that people will enjoy using, such as in a videoconferencing application?

Hermann: Yes, with a bit of scepticism! I have over 20 years of experience in this research field and am probably not as enthusiastic as the rest of the consortium. I believe SPIRIT’s goal of advancing a telepresence platform to a Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) 7, which is a very advanced technical readiness level, implying a truly immersive telepresence, is very ambitious, and frankly, I’m not sure how close we will get to this truly immersive experience. Having said that, I believe the SPIRIT consortium is highly motivated to get as close to this goal as possible.

Simply put, if we have progressed to the point where an immersive video conference can replace a regular video conference for specific use cases with the same level of user experience, that would be a significant accomplishment, regardless of whether this is truly immersive or not. But I believe that if we can take a step toward replacing the typical video conference situations that we have today with something more realistic, more immersive, where we have a better feeling of people really being in a virtual room and being together with them, that would be a good accomplishment. I don’t think we will achieve true immersion, but I believe we will make a significant step toward it. 

Shivi: Hermann is correct. I believe that achieving TRL 7 is a difficult task, but I also believe that our project partners are all very motivated to make this happen and get as close as we can. And, yes, creating an immersive replacement or counterpart to this video conferencing system would be a huge accomplishment. Still not as close to TRL 7 as some people might be expecting when we start this, but it will be a significant accomplishment.