Episode 48 – Eye Contact in Online Therapy

Episode 48 – Eye Contact in Online Therapy

December 18, 2017

Claudia Pluss

CEO of Perceptiko and

Developer of CatchEye

Note, as of now CatchEye is no longer available, but we are keeping the podcast in the archives in the hope it will return.

Hello and welcome to the Online Counseling Podcast. I’m your host, Clay Cockrell, and I wanna thank you for joining us for another episode. If this is your first time listening, we are a podcast that focuses on the world of online therapy, learning how the field is growing and changing, from leaders in the field, from other online therapists and counselors, and also those who are providing services for the field. Our goal is to learn together. If you’re a regular listener, you may have heard me talk about a new technology that I’d heard about, one that adjusts our eyes so that we appear to be making eye contact with our clients through the video feed. If true, it would solve a major problem with telemental health. We all know, as counselors, how important it is to have good eye contact in the therapeutic relationship. It denotes that we are paying attention and really listening. But so many times, with computers, the camera is mounted at the top of the screen or off to the side or maybe built into the top of the screen, and we are looking at our client’s image on the screen and the camera makes it look like we aren’t making really good eye contact, we’re just kinda looking down. And I think it’s a real problem that we’ve tried to figure out, and it’s always just a little off.


CC: I heard from my friend, Jeff Simons, over in the UK, about this plug-in that actually changes the way our eyes are seen online. It adjusts them somehow so it looks like we’re making really good eye contact, even when we aren’t. Seemed too good to be true, but I reached out to this company and we played email tag for a little while, but eventually, today, we were able to connect and I’m so glad we were persistent. It actually was a listener who got in touch with me and said, “Remember that time that you said that you had heard about this, maybe you should follow up because I think that this might… ” Anyway, I did, and here we are.


CC: Our guest today, is Claudia Pluss, who is the developer of this technology and the CEO of Preceptiko, which is the company that owns the technology. The technology or plug-in itself is called CatchEye, and you can download it for free at catch-eye.com. After the interview, Claudia gave me a test drive of the technology. And, wow, this stuff really, really works. I don’t know how, but you have to see it to believe it. And what she talks about in the interview, the lighting and the background, spoiler alert, it doesn’t just adjust the eye contact, it’s got all sorts of bells and whistles. So, the stuff you’re gonna hear about in the interview, she showed me and it was amazing, blown away. All I can say is it really works, you need to go play with this thing. I’m a little bummed that for right now it’s not available on Mac, it’s only on Windows, but she says the Mac version is coming really soon. This is incredible.


CC: This is a shorter podcast than normal. Most of the time, I’m talking with other therapist, and I can go on and on talking about connection and what they learn by doing online therapy work, and marketing, and whatever, but today I’m talking with a tech person. And once you get the basic concept, which is really, really simple, that’s all you need. It may be our shortest interview ever, but it may also be one of the most fascinating. For a little update on the Online Counseling Directory, just real quickly, as most of you know this podcast is a branch of the Online Counseling Directory, which is a listing service for therapist doing online counseling. We have decided to keep the discounted one-year membership going through the summer and we’ll re-evaluate that in the fall. We have two payment plans. One is the Freedom Plan, and it’s month to month, at $24.95. And the other is the Commitment Plan which, when you pay for the year upfront, it takes the fee down to $12.47 a month. We are keeping that year membership through the summer. If you’re interested in starting or growing your online counseling practice, just go over to onlinecounseling.com and click on list my practice.


CC: Okay, here we go. Our interview of CatchEye developer and CEO Claudia Pluss. Okay. Welcome to the Online Counseling Podcast. I am really excited to have a very unique guest on today. Coming all the way from Switzerland, Claudia is working with perceptiko.com, which has an interesting feature called CatchEye. Claudia, welcome to the show.


Claudia Pluss: Hi. Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.


CC: And I wanna make sure that I pronounce your last name correctly. Can you tell us your last name?


CP: Pluss.


CC: Pluss.


CP: Pluss, P-L-U-S-S.


CC: Yes, I just noticed the…


CP: There is umlaut, yeah.


CC: I noticed the umlaut from my choir days of singing, and I’m like, “I’m not sure if I’m gonna get that correctly.” But, Claudia, thank you so much for joining us.


CP: Sure.


CC: Tell us a little bit about your role and what CatchEye is.


CP: Okay, sure. I have a background in computer science and more specifically computer graphics, so I’ve been doing some research on the topic of telepresence, which is when you meet someone physically, it’s a very different feeling then when you meet them online or electronically. So, we’ve been trying to fix some of the obvious problems that occur when you do online communication. And one of these problems is the missing eye contact that many people know, when they talk on Skype, you look at the other person in the screen, but the camera is at a different location so you always look like you were looking down or not really paying attention. During my PhD, we developed an algorithm to actually fix that problem using software, so we, in the background, have a 3D model of the face and then we display that from a new perspective to get the impression that you make eye contact with the other person. And all this happens in real time during the call, during your conversation.


CC: That is fascinating. So… Go ahead.


CP: Yeah, sorry. I was doing this research work and now we actually are commercializing this technology in a spin-off company. We’ve been working on this for about two years now in this company.


CC: Two years?


CP: Yes.


CC: That’s fascinating. Help me understand, you do a 3D model of the entire face and then you just reposition it? The software does an algorithm to reposition the entire face so that it looks like the person is making eye contact directly into the camera, is that correct?


CP: Yes. We reposition it or in a way we rotate it. And then, of course, you have to make sure that you don’t produce any artifact, so you have to really integrate it again into the image such that, of course, the other person doesn’t see the difference. You should look like your normal self, but make eye contact.


CC: Wow. There are so many questions going through my mind. This is through Skype, correct?


CP: Mm-hmm. So the way… Sorry?


CC: Does it work on any other platforms or just on Skype?


CP: It works on most of the popular platforms. The way it works is, in Skype, when the plug-in is installed, you see a new video, a new webcam showing up in the settings. Instead of selecting your normal webcam, you select the CatchEye camera and that’s what enables the features. You can select this CatchEye camera in any video call app.


CC: Oh, on any video calls. If I did doxy.me or Zoom or, I don’t know, GoToMeeting even, any of those, this would work?


CP: Yes. We tested it with most of the popular ones, yes.


CC: Okay, all right. Great. And so I was thinking somehow this is facial recognition software, but that’s not what you’re talking about, right?


CP: The underlying layers are based on facial recognition and facial tracking, and then we build on top of that. Our expertise is not in the tracking and recognition but really how we do the gaze correction.


CC: Gaze correction. I can’t tell you how important that is for our work as a psychotherapist working online or a psychotherapist in general. Eye contact, that ability to connect with our clients and listen with them and make them understand that we are connecting with them is so important. And that’s one of the biggest parts of telemental health. The difficulties, I think, is getting the camera correct, making sure that we are making eye contact with our clients. And I remember going to… This is back maybe in 2005, when I was beginning to look into this type of work, and going to the local computer store and saying, “How do we get the eye contact, correctly?” And they had no idea what I was talking about, but it’s a real thing, you don’t want to appear as if you’re looking away. And what you’re saying is that this corrects this so that we can make really good eye contact, this plug-in does a better eye contact, correct?


CP: Yes, yes. That’s correct. It’s a software that enhances the image actually before it’s sent to the other person. It enables you to make eye contact while not looking at the camera, but looking at the other person.


CC: Okay. What if, just in natural human interaction, we don’t always have a stare into the computer. We’re looking around. If I’m intentionally looking away from the camera, does this plug-in, does this program know that I’m looking away or does it keep my eyes in this fake glassy stare in my face?


CP: No. What we don’t want is to always glue your eyes to make eye contact. Of course, that will be really unnatural. You can imagine it as a new virtual camera that’s in the center of the screen, where the other person is, and whenever you look at the other person, you make eye contact. But if you don’t, if you look away or if you look above, then you don’t make eye contact. So, it’s really meant to mimic a natural conversation, if you were meeting in person.


CC: That is phenomenal. How do you do that? I would imagine that the answer to that question would be long and technical.


CP: Depends how technical you want to go. What we do is we virtually shift the camera into the center of the screen, I guess that’s how you could explain it. Just imagine your webcam was embedded into the screen, that’s what the software does.


CC: Okay. Now, do you record? You take this image, do you record it at all on any level, either the person that I’m talking to or on my end?


CP: No, we don’t record anything actually. The image goes through our software and then gets handed over to Skype and then… We are processing even before Skype knows about it. For Skype, it’s just a webcam. So, there’s no knowledge that we have… What we do is we record and some UI interactions of the user to figure out which features they’re actually enabling or how long they’re using it, but we don’t record the images themselves.


CC: Okay. That’s just really important with confidentiality in my field, that that information is not being shared, either the client side or on my side. That’s just something I know that some of our listeners are going to ask about. The other thing that comes to mind is, does this slow down the connection at all, because we’re now filtering through your app, is this going to make my lips maybe be out of sync because it went through your app before it went to Skype.


CP: Yeah. Of course, that’s really important that that doesn’t happen, so we spent a lot of time in really making it fast enough. And right now, the delay is below one frame so you wouldn’t notice it if you enable it or not. So, it should be just the same as when you use Skype normally.


CC: Wow. Okay. You’ve been doing this as a company for two years now, who is using your product? Yeah, who are your customers?


CP: We have this free version online that anyone can download, and we have a few hundred downloads a week. There’s many people using it for private use, for talking to their family. And we have some YouTubers that are using it for recording themselves, for doing podcasts, like this one. And then also you have professionals, for example, who work maybe in their home. We also have features, for example, to remove the background or to automatically correct the color, so whoever really wants to appear more professional on Skype, on video calls. And then we also have some users, of course, who do therapy sessions, who have been testing it as well.


CC: And what kind of feedback are you getting, if any, from those people who are using this for therapy?


CP: Well, we’ve definitely gotten feedback that this is a big problem and that people are looking for a solution for it. We haven’t had any systematics, let’s say, studies of people using it in sessions and evaluating it, so I’m not sure if that’s even possible due to confidentiality reasons. So, we haven’t really formally evaluated it in that sense.


CC: Okay. All right. Now, you mentioned that this is a free version, and then you also mentioned that you have some other features, maybe removing the background or adjusting color and light. Can you tell me a little bit about those other features that you have?


CP: Yeah. One is improving the lighting. Many people notice, when you sit in front of a bright background, like a window, then your face goes completely dark. To know where the face is, we can actually optimize to make the face look good and to make your skin look natural.


CC: Oh, now, come on, Claudia. [chuckle] Really? You’re gonna improve my complexion and my skin? You’re a miracle worker.




CP: I hope it helps, yeah. What we can do, we try. And then another feature is the automatic zoom, because usually you don’t want to waste too many pixels sending over the background that’s not really interesting, so we zoom in on your face and only transmit that to the other side. And then the background removal, here I have to say that it only works if you have a 3D camera. There’s this Intel RealSense camera, it costs about $150, but it enables you to also track the geometry of the face. It’s a 3D camera that knows the distance to the camera of your face and that lets us to extract a silhouette and actually remove the background. And then we have the eye contact feature, but we really thought about what we could do to improve general video conferencing.


CC: That is amazing. Now, what would it look like then? If you removed my background, if we invested in a 3D camera, remove the background, would you then put a neutral background or you could put me on a beach? What would you do?


CP: Yeah. You can actually put whatever image you like, or another option is to blur the background to create this depth of field effect that many photographers do as well, just to focus the attention more on you instead of the background.


CC: That was interesting, that may actually improve the connection because you’re sending fewer pixels through the broadband connection. Did I get that right?


CP: We are sending the same amount of pixels, but the pixels we are sending are more zoomed in to your face, so you get that at a higher resolution. Does that make sense?


CC: Okay. Yes, that does make sense. Okay, yes. That would be interesting. Yeah, I really want to play around with this plug-in now to see what the impact would be in a therapeutic setting, to get some feedback from some of my clients of what it’s like to have this blurred background or maybe enhancement on my face.


CP: Yeah, interesting. We’re really also looking for feedback from these specific applications as well, how it impacts, let’s say, therapy sessions or any kind of professional video conferencing interactions.


CC: It’s interesting, I’ve not used, I’ve not heard this phrase before, the telepresence. And I think that that’s really fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit more about the concept of telepresence?


CP: Telepresence is just a branch of research describing all these technologies to help people connect better when they communicate online, when they communicate electronically. The goal is to make someone feel present in a remote environment, in an environment that they’re not physically at. Makes sense?


CC: Yeah, absolutely makes sense. So, what do you see… What’s next? Where do you see Perceptiko and CatchEye… What’s on the horizon for you all?


CP: Yeah. So, with this plug-in, we are just entering the market and there’s a lot of work still to be done on that one, so we want to create a mobile version next, for example. The one we have just works on Windows right now, on Windows desktop. We are about to have a Mac version, and then we’d like to go mobile for iPhone and Android, because we realize a lot of people are using video calls on their phones and on the go. So, a lot of people have been asking us for that. And then more in the far future, we are looking into again how to help people communicate better. This might go in the direction of virtual reality, for example. I’ve done some work also in how you can see the other person in 3D, instead of just 2D, so that’s another thing that’s missing, if you compare a face-to-face conversation and video call. I’m looking forward to explore even more how we can create products to help communication.


CC: Okay. That’s fascinating. Well, Claudia, thank you so much. Is there anything that maybe we didn’t cover that maybe we should that might be some of our listeners who are online therapists might be interested in?


CP: Everyone is invited to download our plug-in and try it out themselves. Even if you like, if you’re comfortable try it in a therapy session, and we’d be very thrilled to hear your feedback, if it’s positive or negative. We’re always looking to improve and to know what people like and what they don’t like.


CC: Okay, that sounds great. We can find this at perceptiko.com, is that correct?


CP: Yes. That’s the company website. You can also find it at catch-eye.com, that’s directly to the product.


CC: Directly to the product?


CP: Maybe you can post it in the blog, it’s catch-eye.com.


CC: Absolutely. We will put that in the show notes, but if you’re driving and you want to get the correct spelling there, it’s C-A-T-C-H dash E-Y-E dot com. Did I get that right?


CP: Yes, that’s correct.


CC: All right. I think that this is going to really revolutionize some of our practices and how we connect, because if we can improve lighting, we can improve background, we can improve actual eye contact, or at least the perception of eye contact, it’s going to take that therapeutic connection to the next level. Claudia, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing a little bit about what you’re doing.


CP: Thanks for having me. No problem at all.