Step in a booth to put your 3D image on the net

July 21, 1999

A digital photo booth that allows people to create three-dimensional computer images of themselves will be launched at a digital imaging convention in Los Angeles next month. The idea is to let you send a computerised 3D version of yourself-animated if you wish-into Internet chat rooms or networked computer games, to show users who they are dealing with.

At present, you can pretend to be anyone, of either sex. But by using the new technique to help build realistic computer models-known as avatars-you should be able to give other users a clearer impression of who you are, says Adrian Hilton, who developed the technology at the University of Surrey. Besides enabling people to recognise one another on the Internet, they could be used to personalise an e-mail, a computer game or a website.

Already one company is developing a service based on the technology, and is planning to make booths available in the near future. They should be as easy to use as an ordinary photo booth, says Hilton, with four digital photos taken of the person's front, back and sides-full-length, clothing and all. The subject is spared the usual five-minute wait, because their 3D model is transferred electronically to a secure website from which it can be downloaded later.

The avatar is generated by mapping the four images onto four 2D templates of a human outline. The templates, which come from a generic 3D model of a person, are stretched or squeezed by the program to fit the shape of the person and then recombined into a 3D "wire-mesh" model with movable joints. Colour is added by comparing the colour of each photo at every point on the model and filling in the relevant section on the avatar. Animation software can then be harnessed to make the model move.

Hilton believes that the avatars could be useful as a form of identification on the Internet. "If you want to be recognised as yourself then these avatars are very good," he says. But he concedes that it would be far from foolproof, because someone could steal your avatar and use it for their own ends.

Phil Jones, an assistant registrar at Britain's Office of the Data Protection Registrar, says there is no obvious protection in British law against someone acquiring and misusing another person's image. "For that reason people need to be careful about making it available," he warns.

One drawback of the technique is that in mapping the photos onto the templates the program uses the person's crotch and armpits as landmarks. The unfortunate consequence of this, says Hilton, is that if they are wearing a skirt it assumes that the hem is their crotch and gives them extremely short legs with knee joints in their ankles. "We're working on this," he says.
-end-
Author: Duncan Graham-Rowe
New Scientist issue 24th July

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