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Avid subsidiary SoftImage believes it has a breakthrough in automating the animation of human facial characteristics for video-quality programming.

The company believes its Face Robot can dramatically drop the costs of giving animated characters facial expressions that humans can instantly, empathically, interpret.

Avid previewed the 3-D software at Siggraph last week, and created the face seen here, although we're not quite sure what emotion this character is supposed to be expressing.

The technology is built on a new computer model of facial soft tissue that mimics the full range of emotions portrayed by the human face and offers artists an intuitive way to interact with computer generated characters providing precise control over facial details, including wrinkles, frowns, flaring nostrils and bulging neck muscles.

Facial animation is difficult because facial expressions emerge primarily from deformations of the soft tissue on the face, which is nearly impossible to capture with existing 3-D cameras. Face Robot translates what it sees in a human face into the muscle movements that it knows a human face is capable of, instead of drawing a 3-D map. Faces can either be drawn using keyframe animation or by using motion capture, watching a live actor's face.

The soft tissue model at the core of the technology removes the need to manually create dozens or even hundreds of 3-D shapes for different facial expressions and allows animators to work with an optimal number of control points. Keyframe animators can gain very direct, intuitive access to facial expressions, while motion capture animators can work with fewer markers to reduce setup and cleanup time.

What Faultline finds interesting about this process is that gradually the movie industry is creating a whole process of creating films that don't involve actors, or gives them only bit parts, and many of these are the most successful of recent films.

Another company, Alias Research, came to fame several decades ago by animating the video realistic movements of dinosaurs in the film Jurassic Park. Underneath this was a library of 3-D body and muscle movements and the 3-D libraries of Silicon Graphics. Today films like The Lord of the Rings have been made possible because instead of using extras, that same technology, now in its PC format called Maya, can generate thousands of screaming Orcs without one of them looking the same.

If software libraries like this Softimage Face Robot can be combined with powerful PC sized workstations, then suddenly the film industry will be rife with home grown video realistic animation, from 100s of more gifted professionals as well as enthusiastic amateurs. That will create a huge amount of content to zip around the internet.

Copyright © 2005, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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