Hollywood leg-up for Stand-Ins

A US company is betting that biologically realistic graphics technology developed at Auckland University will help it stand out from the virtual crowd.

A US company is betting that biologically realistic graphics technology developed at Auckland University will help it stand out from the virtual crowd.

Boston-based LifeFX (www.lifefx.com) this week launches Stand-Ins, a product that attaches a photo-realistic talking head to email. Recipients must download LifeFX’s media player to bring alive the virtual character, which reads the message aloud, moving its lips and assuming facial expressions that match the content.

In an ongoing licensing agreement worth $US500,000 per year over the past two years, LifeFX is using digital modelling technology from Auckland University to give the messenger its anatomically correct edge. Computerworld understands this amount is to increase significantly when the contract is renewed at the end of this calendar year.

The team behind the technology is the university’s bioengineering research group, headed by professor Peter Hunter and comprising research engineer Shane Blackett and Drs Richard Christie, Poul Nielsen and David Bullivant from the engineering school. The group’s core research area is biomedical engineering but it licenses technology for entertainment use to LifeFX.

The link with the US company goes back to 1996 when Auckland University PhD student Mark Sagar was working on a project to develop digital replicas of eyeballs to train eye surgeons. The following year he was appointed as a post doctoral fellowship at Dr Ian Hunter's (brother of Peter Hunter and now a LifeFX director) laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“At that stage we had no idea of the commercial potential of this stuff but it was while Mark was at MIT that we realised what was possible,” says Peter Hunter.

Backers were found and a company, Pacific Title Mirage, was set up to exploit work by Sagar and Auckland University, aimed at the movie industry. About a year ago it was decided the internet is a more suitable application and LifeFX was formed with Sagar as vice president. The company, which listed on the Nasdaq in September, has a market capitalisation of $US375 million. It hopes to sell the technology to online businesses which will use Stand-Ins as virtual sales people and site guides.

By the second quarter of next year LifeFX says people will be able to submit photos and have the images turned into 3D virtual characters which read text.

LifeFX chief executive Lucie Salhany, former chair of Fox Broadcasting, says what is unique is how the Stand-Ins look compared with other avatars on the web. So far the LifeFX Media players work only with Windows although Mac and Linux versions are on the drawing board.

Animations using technology by the Auckland University group have also been presented at London's Millennium dome.

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