The Times reports that "their bodies will be filmed using the latest evolution of motion-capture technology -- markers placed on the actor and tracked by a camera -- while the facial expressions will be tracked by tiny cameras on headsets that will record their performances to insert them into a virtual world."This description says as much, however, about the limits of high-performance computing as it does about HPC's leading-edge capabilities. It says that you can't synthesize realistic human emotion without the "ghost in the machine" (pace Gilbert Ryle). If you want believable human movement -- even with Cameron's reported $200 million budget -- you rely on human actors to breath life into your avatars.
The Times article brought to mind a chat I had with an IDC analyst, Earl Joseph, back at the Council on Competitiveness's High Performance Computing 2004 Users Conference. Joseph's an HPC expert and appeared as a panelist. He shared thoughts about the computer generated movie Madagascar; a Dreamworks speaker had earlier shown a clip. I spoke to Joseph after the panel. I suggested that more impressive would have been a coherent plot and deeper characters... no, actually, computer rendering not only of the images but also of the speech. That's a hard problem, realistic speech synthesis -- speech animation if you will. Joseph agreed that certain simulation problems remain seemingly unreachable.
I wrote in a 2004 Intelligent Enterprise column on HPC, "each accomplishment leads to new possibilities -- new notions about what problems are computable -- as the road forward extends ever farther into the distance." Cameron's Avatar is just another milepost, and just $8.50 at a movieplex near you.
Seth Grimes is principal of Alta Plana, which consults for users and vendors on business intelligence, data warehousing, and emerging analytical technologies. Write him at [email protected].The January 10 New York Times ran an intriguing article, "Computers Join Actors in Hybrids On Screen." It describes a new James Cameron film, "Avatar," in which the movie's alien characters will be designed by computer but played by human actors "filmed using the latest evolution of motion-capture technology -- markers placed on the actor and tracked by a camera." This description says as much about the limits of high-performance computing as it does about HPC's leading-edge capabilities.