UK company GreenEyes has launched a desktop videophone which it claims, is the most affordable way to achieve "eye-to-eye" communication in real-time.

According to the company, the drawback of conventional desktop videoconferencing systems is that they lack the ability to achieve smooth eye contact in real-time conditions because the camera and the viewed image are physically separate from one another, as in a webcam setup.

This creates an unnatural disjunction, where the viewer is always looking not at the camera itself, but at the image of the other person, which hampers its usefulness as a tool for high-quality communication.

The Eye Catcher 3.5 solves this problem by reflecting the image of the person being called onto a mirror screen, behind which lies the camera lens at eye-height. This means that the user is always looking directly at the person to whom they are speaking.

The technology was developed by GreenEyes' Dutch parent company Ex'ovision, and is capable of displaying moving images at up to 1024 x 768 without loss of quality. The unit would deliver H.263, H.264 video at bandwidths as low as 0.5 Mbits/s, but 1 Mbits/s and above in both directions was needed for 30fps moving images, either across broadband or by bonding at least three ISDN channels. Links can also be encrypted.

"Businesses are waking up to the fact that they need to reduce their carbon emissions. The Eye Catcher is exactly the sort of device that can be easily incorporated into working life while also forming a key part of companies' climate change strategies," said GreenEyes’ director Paul Dickinson, who is also CEO of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).

"At CDP we use the Eye Catcher to keep in touch with our New York office from London. It sits on the desktop so feels just like having the New York staff in the office with us - and allows us to be an active part of their day too," he said.

The Eye Catcher is best suited for one-on-one communication, or one-to-few, but is otherwise the same as any other videoconferencing design. Being a desktop unit, it does not require an entire room to be given over to its use, as would sophisticated telepresence systems.

Early customers included Unilever, which had bought 50 of the units and the Dutch military. The units costs 5,000 Euros (approx $7,300) each, with one required at each end of the link.

To put this into perspective, business telepresence videoconferencing systems from Cisco and HP usually cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but are designed to cope with large numbers of users in multiple locations.