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'Surround vision' takes viewers beyond TV screen

Applying the concept of surround sound, MIT researchers have developed a system that would enable viewers using handhelds to follow objects outside their TV screen.

Surround sound? That's old technology. How about surround vision?

The folks at the MIT Media Lab have developed a new system called surround vision that can let you follow objects outside of your regular TV screen by viewing them on smartphones and handheld Internet devices. Imagine you're watching a movie on your regular TV, and a car drives off the screen. You could follow and view that car as it drives away by looking at and pointing your smartphone or tablet in its direction.

MIT's surround vision in action
MIT's surround vision in action. MIT Labs

The person leading this promising new project is Santiago Alfaro, a graduate student at the lab. To kick-start his testing, Alfaro attached a magnetometer to an existing handheld device. A type of digital compass, magnetometers are already used in smartphones like the iPhone to detect the direction the device is pointing. He then created the necessary software to sync the magnetometer with other sensors on the device.

After outfitting the handheld with motion sensors, Alfaro shot video on campus from three different angles--center, left, and right. Watching the TV screen straight on played video from the center. But by pointing the handheld to the left or right, Alfaro was able to view the footage shot from both side angles.

As a further test of the technology, Alfaro took advantage of the alternate takes found on many DVDs. He created a demo that let him switch between the final footage and the alternate takes and angles by changing the direction of the handheld device.

Though the technology may sound like it needs further development, it's designed to work with existing Internet-enabled portable gadgets, including smartphones and tablets. Since a lot of today's handheld devices already have magnetometers, no modifications would be necessary. Further, TV stations wouldn't have to change their broadcasts or equipment, according to Alfaro and his adviser, Media Lab research scientist Michael Bove.

"In the Media Lab, and even my group, there's a combination of far-off-in-the-future stuff and very, very near-term stuff, and this is an example of the latter," said Bove in a news release Friday. "This could be in your home next year if a network decided to do it."

The MIT researchers plan to test surround vision on other users this spring and summer using content developed by Boston Public TV and other partners. They're keen to try it out on sporting events and live TV shows since those broadcasts already shoot footage from different angles. Even crime shows like "CSI" could benefit from the surround vision, said Bove, by letting people view what the medical examiners see when they peer through a microscope.