The future according to Microsoft: the Magic Window revolutionizes video chat

David Phelan has an exclusive peek behind the scenes at
Microsoft’s research and development facilities – here’s his first report

It may sound like something out of Play School, but the Magic Window is amazing out-there technology. Imagine a wall-sized window with you on one side and a friend on the other. Scrawl on the window with a marker pen and your friend can see it from the other side.

That’s all the Magic Window does, except that it’s really a screen, so you and your friend can be on opposite sides of the world.

It sounds simple, but making it happen is fiendishly difficult. We have two eyes, so we see in stereo. Steve Bathiche, a fast-talking boffin whose Microsoft team is behind the Magic Window explained that the window had to see in stereo, too.

“If you look around the window and move your head, the view changes. So we track the viewer’s head so the view changes as you move. This is what’s called motion view parallax and is a powerful technique to give the user the illusion of looking through a window.”

But an illusion of depth only comes through mimicking our eyes – so you need two cameras working together – and without the glasses you need for 3D TVs. This means using a special lens called the Wedge in conjunction with a motion sensor that knows where your eyes are. And that motion sensor? Well, you may have come across one already. It’s the Kinect sensor that comes with the Xbox.

In fact, it was Microsoft who developed this when exploring 3D movement, and when the Xbox team needed a sensor, they found the company had already invented one.

The Kinect is an example of how research into one thing, like the Magic Window, can have powerful side-effects. So, for instance, when working on transparent screens, the company devised a great way to improve video calls. When you have a see-through screen, you can place a camera right in the middle directly behind it.

You’ll be familiar with video calling apps like FaceTime on the iPhone and iPad: ever have a lingering feeling that you weren’t quite connecting? Some of that’s down to the way you and your caller are looking at the face in the middle of the display, not the camera at the top edge.

With this technology you create a video call where you can look your caller straight in the eyes and lose that feeling that the person you’re talking to is looking somewhere else. The result is a much better experience. Maybe, if that technology reaches fruition, it’ll be enough to actually persuade us to make video calls. Maybe not.

Even so, the transparent screen also lets you interact in different ways, grabbing the air behind the screen to affect what’s on the display. In practice, this takes some getting used to, but it’s fun. And very Minority Report.

When Steve’s team worked on making the Magic Window work for more than one person, they found a way to create a split screen where two people can play a video game at the same time, but see completely different screens. This technology is already available for some TVs and means two people can watch different channels simultaneously on the same TV (though at least one needs to wear headphones and it could feel somewhat isolating).

Steve has many more problems to solve before the Window is ready for home use, and he wouldn’t put a time frame on it, but if and when it happens the results will be realistic… but with extra features.

One person will be able to write a word on the window but – unlike a glass window, the Microsoft one can translate the word so the person on the other side sees it in their language.

The Magic Window exemplifies how crucial research and development departments are and how important it is to stay with developing technologies even if there’s no immediate implementation in sight.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
Life and Style
Researchers have said it could take only two questions to identify a problem with alcohol
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'
tvCilla review: A poignant ending to mini-series
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    IT Governance and Risk Coordinator (COBIT, Risk, Audits)

    £45000 - £55000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: IT Gove...

    Junior / Mid Weight PHP Web Developer

    £25000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PHP Developer - Vauxhall, London - £...

    PMO Analyst – Permanent – Surrey – Up to £40k

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

    Service Delivery Manager - Software Company

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager Kingston Up...

    Day In a Page

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style