Advanced 3D avatars

[From the Spring 2009 issue of Brain Matters on the web site of the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth]

Face Reality in the Virtual World

T. Boone Pickens stood in front of a large computer monitor and smiled. On the screen, a 3D model of a character (called an avatar) that extraordinarily resembled him returned the identical smile, down to the slight tilt of the head, in real time. Then the renowned entrepreneur, philanthropist, and generous supporter of the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth frowned. His computerized doppelganger flashed him the exact scowl in return. The prescient businessman with the proven ability to recognize true innovation left the high-tech presentation mightily impressed.

BrainHealth researchers striving to help individuals who struggle with the processing of social information, specialists from UT Dallas and its Arts and Technology program, Ph.D.s from UT Arlington, and a handful of energetic freelance computer geniuses joined forces to create a brave new world of virtual reality technology actively employing computer-based face recognition. The goal: to explode the graphics capability, raising the realism to strengthen the user´s necessary suspension of disbelief.  Thanks to their combined expertise, patients who never before knew how they came across to others (due to brain trauma, autism, ADHD, and other brain injuries and disorders) will soon be able to see for themselves their exact reactions to a variety of real world stimuli, giving them the feedback to judge if their angry or sad or confused response is appropriate. Their lives will be changed.

With this new ability, “feedback is more direct, immediate, and quantifiable,” said BrainHealth clinician Tandra Toon, affording “the opportunity to show the range of improvement over time, which would have just been subjective before.”

The advanced avatar environments expand beyond the capabilities of Second Life, the world´s largest 3D virtual world community, which was used before. The new system springing to life at BrainHealth employs a tiny, unobtrusive camera focused on the user to capture reactions and immediately place them onto the face of a computerized twin. The Center´s social cognition specialists utilized UT Arlington´s Dr. Heng Huang´s recognition software, UT Dallas´s Dr. Alice O´Toole´s database of human faces, and the intense experience of freelancers Carl Lutz and Sean Jensen (who supervised specialized computer effects on Jimmy Neutron, Ant Bully, and other films) and their talented team to geometrically expand the realism of the once-limited avatar to increase its clinical usefulness. “What we are doing here is even more cutting-edge than the latest computer-generated filmmaking,” marveled Mr. Lutz at the elevation of the Center for BrainHealth onto the upper tier of worldwide virtual reality research.

T. Boone Pickens´ avatar would smile at that.

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