Humans and Avatars: The Ghost in the Machine - InformationWeek
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1/10/2007
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Seth Grimes
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Humans and Avatars: The Ghost in the Machine

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.

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." The movie's alien characters will be designed by computer but played by human actors.

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 grimes@altaplana.com.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.

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