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Researchers Target Low-Cost Avatar Technology


Imagine two dimensional photos and social media avatars being replaced by 3-dimensional representations of the actual user.

According to Ari Shapiro, a research scientist at University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, that technology is just around the corner.

“For me it is exciting to see what we now have," he said, describing a low-cost technology that may revolutionize social media. "Soon a lot of people will have the capability to model themselves very, very quickly for almost no cost.”

Demonstrating how the 3D avatar technology works at the school's Mixed Reality Lab open house, Shapiro gives attendee Jason Suh a quick body scan. Within minutes, Suh sees an avatar of himself moving around on a computer monitor.

“It was insane. Within a minute or so, they’ve got a copy of me, a 3D model of me, had me jumping and running," Suh said. "Since it’s an avatar of yourself, you can use it on like Facebook or something and personalize yourself — have a 3D model of yourself rather than just a profile picture.”

According to researchers, users will need the appropriate software, a computer and a scanner such as the Microsoft Kinect to get a 360-degree body scan to create the avatar. Since the process takes only a few minutes, users can change the look of the avatar every day.

The technology captures the person’s clothes, hair style and accessories such as glasses or a purse. The computer software then uses a variety of stored animations to make the avatar come to life.

Shapiro says 3D avatars can change the social media experience and make people feel more connected.

“So if you can imagine having a Facebook page where you have not only ... some information but your virtual character [speaking] the information, or some sort of social application where you and your friends and your family are shown as these avatars," Shapiro said. "So we believe that there’s a very interesting psychological effect that’s going to happen when people start seeing themselves and families and friends inside these simulations. We think it’ll be very powerful.”

While three-dimensional avatars created for Hollywood movies can cost millions of dollars, Shapiro says this type of avatar is much cheaper.

“We expect it’s going to be on the order of $10, $50, maybe $100 tops for a piece of software that can capture you and simulate you.”

Of course, there is a trade-off for the low price tag. For the moment, these avatars are missing some fine details such as dimples and the creasing of the eyes.

But Shapiro says as sensor technology improves, so will the quality. He is currently working on capturing the subtleties of movement and behavior — how a person walks, moves and socializes — in order to create 3-D avatars with personality.

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