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Sharing Pictures at
a Virtual Coffee Table

HP Labs Researchers Demonstrate Real-time
Photo Sharing Over the Internet

January 2003

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We use the shared photo album as a vehicle for two-way interaction and conversation.
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Imagine sitting at a table with friends or family, passing treasured photographs around, pointing out people or places and recalling your memories of when the pictures were taken.

We can share and discuss real pictures like this, but -- until now -- it couldn't be done with digital images sent over the Internet.

Researchers from Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Bristol (UK) have developed an experimental application they call HP Labs PicShare, which recreates the experience of sharing pictures, photograph albums and conversation at a distance.

Maurizio Pilu, the scientist who created PicShare, says he is interested in exploring remote sharing of photographs.

"We started by looking at the currently available applications such as Microsoft NetMeeting and various instant messaging programs," he recalls. "But although they do make image sharing possible, they also present a number of technical problems because they are not designed for sharing photographs."

So Pilu and fellow researcher David Frohlich decided to find out exactly how people share photographs around a coffee table -- what do they do and say to make this an enjoyable and useful experience? Their aim was to design an electronic system that would be as close as possible to the real activity of sharing and discussing photos.

The prototype system, which uses standard computing equipment, is a kind of virtual coffee table where people anywhere in the world can exchange, browse and talk about photographs in real time. It is an interactive experience, just like sharing a photo album with people in your own home.

Snapshot of the HP Labs PicShare prototype
Live sharing of photo albums online, with friends and family, could become a widespread and fun activity.

Using PicShare online, two people can send each other their pictures, browse a virtual photo album together, discuss the images, point or zoom-in on details, scan and send new photos while talking. The participants can keep the received pictures for printing or later use. The interaction is natural and the synchronous photo sharing experience can even be enjoyed on low-bandwidth modem connections.

No other application allows people to do all this. For instance, with instant messaging there are problems with screen mismatches for participants and it would not be possible to point, zoom or manage multiple images. With NetMeeting, which needs a high bandwidth connection, there are set-up difficulties and two-way interaction is limited.

Frohlich has run a number of formal user trials to find out what people think about HP Labs PicShare. In the experiment, 10 pairs of friends and four extended family groups shared holiday snaps and old family photos while they were in two separate rooms.

"The feedback we obtained was extremely positive," says Frohlich. "They rated synchronous photo sharing highly in terms of its ease of use, control, enjoyment and efficiency. The key value was the ability to tell a story with photos and instantly to obtain reactions and comments to these stories."

This contrasts with current methods of sending photos without adequate explanation and or feedback on their reception.

Unlike NetMeeting and similar applications, which are good for giving presentations at a distance, PicShare is optimized for conversation around photos.

"We use the shared photo album as a vehicle for two-way interaction and conversation," Frohlich says.

Pilu says the researchers learned a lot from user trials and by observing people operating PicShare.

"Now we firmly believe that live sharing of photo albums online, with friends and family, could become a widespread and fun activity, especially if synchronous photo sharing is integrated into mainstream communications applications such as instant messaging systems."

The researchers are currently exploring this and other
options for offering sychronous photo sharing to the majority of Internet users.

by Julian Richards

News and Events

» Requirements for Photoware
(from CSCW '02)
» More About Picshare
» Maurizio Pilu
(personal page)
» Archives
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