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USC lab faces up to digital innovations

Digital Ira is a photo-real digital double that was created at USC in collaboration with the research and development group of Activision.

The Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) Graphics Lab at USC will get some serious face time at the 40th International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, better known as Siggraph 2013.

Virtual visages developed at the university’s research institute will have a prominent profile during the Association for Computing Machinery’s conference to be held July 22-25 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Digital Ira, a photo-real digital double that debuted to much acclaim and more than a million YouTube views at the recent Game Developers Conference, was created in collaboration with the research and development (R&D) group of video game maker Activision. The latest version of this interactive Ira will be one of the highlights of the conference.

“People ask if we have crossed the uncanny valley,” said Paul Debevec, director of the ICT Graphics Lab, referring to the uncomfortable feeling some people get when viewing a digital character that is almost human but not quite. “With the advances this project has achieved, I think we’ve at least climbed pretty far up the other side.”

Digital Ira represents a new generation of digital double because he can be rendered in real-time, responsive to changes in viewpoint and lighting, and he can perform realistically from video performance capture even in a tight close-up. In addition, thanks to numerous innovations in animation and rendering by Activision, he runs in a practical, game-ready production pipeline. He also illustrates how university and industry researchers can come together to advance the state of the art.

“In the Digital Ira project, we have found a great meshing between academia and industry,” said Javier von der Pahlen, director of R&D at Activision. “While ICT is a leader in computer vision-to-capture of humans, at Activision R&D, we have developed bleeding-edge means to represent this data on consumer hardware. I like to say that together we are approaching the ‘face of singularity.’ ”

Debevec added that he believes video games with this level of believable character will be appearing in the next year or so. He also sees a role for these interactive characters in movies.

“Live-action films are hit-and-miss while animated films are usually [financially] successful — look at White House Down and The Lone Ranger compared to Monsters University and Despicable Me 2,” said Debevec, who is also a research professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “Once human characters can be rendered digitally faster and more flexibly than shooting real people, we’ll be able to apply the more controllable production processes of animation to create what look like live-action films.”

A holographic 3-D version of Ira, along with live scans of real people, will be projected as part of ICT’s 3-D facial display demonstration at the conference’s showcase for emerging technologies. This work represents an extension of ICT’s award-winning 3-D display system, which took the prize for best emerging technology at the 2007 conference.

Both projects were developed in collaboration with Mark Bolas, director of mixed reality at ICT and a professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, who will be speaking about keys to successful academic and industry partnerships in a business symposium talk.

The latest version leverages low-cost, miniature video projectors, which require no moving parts to display a life-size head in 3-D. The ICT team is working to advance the system to project a full body as well. Debevec said the technology could be useful for video conferencing, entertainment and interactive museum displays. In fact, he and ICT colleagues are now working with the USC Shoah Foundation: The Institute for Visual History and Education and the design firm Conscience Display to create an interactive, full-size projection of a Holocaust survivor that can understand questions and answer them.

“It’s exciting to see technologies from science fiction actually come to life and be useful for students and society,” Debevec said. “Our work with outside collaborators helps advance these technologies and challenges us to attempt to solve problems in areas we might never have explored.”

One such area is in the accurate 3-D modeling of objects such as sunglasses, which are a challenge to replicate because of the complicated ways materials using glass, plastic and metal reflect light. ICT researchers will be at the technical papers session to present their breakthroughs on the creation of fully computer-generated glasses and other objects.

Funding for the research came from retailer, which recently launched an iPad app that allows people to virtually try on glasses by scanning their faces and fitting them with simulated spectacles.

“What we are working toward is a system that could scan a pair of glasses, capture their correct shape and reflectance properties and 10 minutes later we’ll have a pair of virtual glasses that would look the same as if a real person were wearing them,” said Debevec, who added that the same technology could also be useful for other forms of online commerce or by museum archivists looking to have accurate digital reproductions of jewelry and other historical artifacts.

For a full list of ICT participation at the conference, visit


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USC lab faces up to digital innovations

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