Virtual humans

Toby Howard

This article first appeared in Personal Computer World magazine, October 1998.

WATCH OUT -- there's a Virtual Human about. Or there soon will be. According to researchers at the recent Virtual Humans Conference held in California, v-humans may be the future of the human-computer interface, and will revolutionise the entertainment industry. It's already beginning to happen.

Also known as "digital people" or "avatars", v-humans are highly realistic computer-generated models of people, with faces which correctly lip-synchronise with speech, and show emotion. Although the subject of many years' research, v-humans have only recently become practical because of the sheer amount of computer power required to render them in real-time.

In the movie industry the use of entirely computer-generated actors, or "synthespians", is becoming big business. Many of the crowd scenes in the movie "Titanic", for example, used only synthespians -- not a human extra in sight. But synthespians don't come cheap: the effects company responsible, Digital Domain, needed the computing power of a network of 160 433MHz DEC Alpha PCs.

Entrepreneurs have not been slow off the mark to realise the financial possibilities of v-humans. Virtual Celebrity Productions, for example, is a Los Angeles-based company which creates photorealistic digital reproductions of celebrities. They've already signed up with the estates of a number of famous stars, including W C Fields and Sammy Davis Jr. Within three years, says founder Jeffrey Lotman, it will be possible to digitally graft a celebrity's synthetic face onto the head of a live actor so convincingly that it will be impossible to spot the digital fake. "Can you imagine doing a brand-new film with Marlene Dietrich?" asks Lotman.

The thought that the dead can be recreated as digital mannequins is getting Hollywood hot under the collar, as the studios see the enormous commercial opportunities of making new movies using the stars of the past. Later this year, for example, George Burns will rise digitally from his grave and star in another sequel to the film "Oh, God!".

But if you create a digital representation of a person, who owns the data? Can you be "digitally kidnapped"? Questions like these are naturally getting lawyers excited, and there have already been some rulings: Nadia Thalmann of Geneva's Miralab, for example, was recently prohibited from using the likeness of Martina Hingis in a virtual tennis match against her well-known computer-generated model of Marilyn Monroe.

Several companies are now offering v-human products for the home market, but it's early days. Virtual Personalities Inc., for example, sells what it calls "verbal robots" or "verbots". You can download a demo of Sylvie, a "verbally enhanced artificially intelligent entity". Currently, this isn't very impressive -- the verbot's understanding of natural language is rudimentary. Along similar lines, Haptek Inc offers a fully 3-D "virtual friend" for your desktop. Today, programs like these are fun for five minutes or so, but we should expect to see v-human technology improve rapidly over the next few years. A number of international experts recently formed the "Metaborg Consortium" to define standards for v-human technology. They see v-humans as an inevitable development of the human-computer interface.

In time, companies will no doubt spring up offering to digitally preserve our dear departed loved ones. Supplied with voice samples and home-videos from which body shapes and gaits can be extracted, the digital cloners will sell us highly-realistic, walking, talking, digital ghosts.

At first, v-humans will pop up on our PC screens. As new display technologies emerge, we'll have life-sized portraits hanging on the wall -- but the canvas will be an ultra-thin high-resolution computer display, and the image will be "alive". When the true three-dimensional display finally arrives, capable of creating a solid image anywhere in space, these digital spectres will walk around and sit with us. And then things will start to get really spooky.

Toby Howard teaches at the University of Manchester.