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Bodysnatchers! MS Research steals your face

Weird scenes inside the boffin bank...

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Microsoft Research is stealing faces - and maybe more besides. Unabashedly describing his operation as Microsoft's Star Trek division, unabashed Trekkie Rick Rashid last week described how the group had lifted 300 faces at the recent CHI (Computer Human Interface) conference, and showed what could be done with them.

MSR tracks a camera around your face, then uses this as the basic data to produce a realistic animation of your head. Or in the case of the demo, Rick's head. Put the animation up on screen and you can make it smile, frown and... er, well that seemed to be about it for the moment. And it does seem to have black hollows instead of eyeballs, but that just kind of adds to the bodysnatchers flavour of things.

But there's lot more paranoia material; there's voice, for example. Rick demos back-to-back clips of people and synthesised versions of these people speaking, and the synth versions really aren't half bad, the best being MSR's tame voice actor, who seems to have been hired because he sounds like a computer anyway. Which is kind of sinister in itself.

Obviously there's a hell of a lot of crunching going into MSR, the commercial, but it still gives you an idea of the direction of the thinking. And still, there's more - a personal terraserver?

The terraserver itself is an interesting project, designed to soak up scads of storage in making maps of the US available for free. It does, now we consider it, seem to be also performing another function in getting page hits for MSN, from the look of where it redirects to, but we're being nice about Microsoft just now, so we won't mention that. Here it is, please hit generously.

The concept of the personal terraserver is based on the premise that storage is cheap, and that virtually infinite quantities of it will be available, RSN. So what do you do with it? Well, right now there's enough storage around for you to be able to record all of your conversations for your whole life. Some people are probably self-important/weird enough to be doing it already, but we won't mention Larry, seeing this is about Microsoft.

Rick says that soon there'll be sufficient storage for you to record everything you see in your life as well. So you could record your life, then using the face- and voice-snatching capabilities of Windows 2010, edit it (Rick didn't say that - we did).

Scary, sinister stuff, eh? And we didn't even mention the "teleporter" project. Fortunately, the cuddly Microsoft that's constantly poised to do something dumb remains close to the surface. Towards the end of the presentation Rick described what the group was doing in the area of pervasive networking, and talked about a mall near Redmond Microsoft already has wired.

You'll automatically become part of the network when you come within range of it, and you'll be able to see which of your friends are around. There'll even be a "find a friend" function. We liked this particularly, incidentally, because the system could have all sorts of hilarious (and not so hilarious) consequences if you could work it as some kind of variant on chat rooms combined with what people are already starting to do with text messaging. Think of chat rooms where you were only a few steps away from whoever you were chatting to, so you could hook up immediately with the unexpectedly large and hairy 11 year old girl.

Rick didn't mention that either, but he did volunteer that MSR was onto the privacy implications of people always being able to see where you really were. So they won't be able to. It "allows you to determine where you are, rather than the environment." So, a pervasive networking system that lies at your behest - a sort of virtual coat over the back of a chair. Beam him up, Scottie... ®

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