Digital Human Presents Live TED Talk

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Digital Domain’s Doug Roble delivers a talk alongside his ‘DigiDoug’ virtual avatar.

Digital Domain’s Head of Software R&D Doug Roble made history during this year’s TED Conference after conducting a live talk alongside a highly-detailed virtual avatar modeled after the VFX industry veteran himself.

During the brief 12-and-a-half minute talk, DigiDoug—as the team has come to call it—mirrored every action and expression made by the original Doug as he went into detail explaining the intricacies and challenges that came with developing true-to-life digital humans.

“Over the last 15 years, we’ve been putting humans and creatures into film that you accept as real,” explains Roble. “If they’re happy, you should feel happy. And if they feel pain, you should empathize with them. We’re getting pretty good at it, too. But it’s really, really difficult. Effects like these take thousands of hours and hundreds of really talented artists.”

“But things have changed. Over the last five years, computers and graphics cards have gotten seriously fast. And machine learning, deep learning, has happened. So we asked ourselves: Do you suppose we could create a photo-realistic human, like we’re doing for film, but where you’re seeing the actual emotions and the details of the person who’s controlling the digital human in real time?”

Image Credit: TED / Sapling Foundation

“In fact, that’s our goal: If you were having a conversation with DigiDoug one-on-one, is it real enough so that you could tell whether or not I was lying to you? So that was our goal.”

Roble recorded his likeness in a state-of-the-art “light stage” at the University of Southern California’s Vision and Graphics Labwhere an array of cameras and lights captured his face under a variety of lighting conditions.

To bring DigiDoug to life on-stage, Roble slipped into an Xsens motion capture suit and Manus VR gloves to control his virtual counterpart; meanwhile, Fox VFX Lab’s helmet camera system captured Roble’s facial expression. This combined with Digital Domain’s marker-less, minimally-rigged, single-camera facial animation system added an additional layer of personability to the digital human.

Image Credit: TED / Sapling Foundation

“Originally built for entertainment purposes as a new tool for storytellers and filmmakers, other applications for this technology immediately surfaced,” said John Fragomeni, President, Digital Domain. “The work from the Digital Human Group will change communication and human interactions forever.”

According to Roble, their lineup of digital humans can exist in a variety of interactive formats, including VR.

“You can already interact with DigiDoug in VR. And it is eye-opening. It’s just like you and I are in the same room, even though we may be miles apart. Heck, the next time you make a video call, you will be able to choose the version of you-you want people to see. It’s like really, really good makeup. I was scanned about a year and a half ago.I’ve aged.DigiDoug hasn’t.On video calls, I never have to grow old.”

Image Credit: TED / Sapling Foundation

Towards the end of the presentation, Roble demonstrated the flexibility of their digital human technology, including the ability to instantaneously swap between digital characters by transforming DigiDoug into a fantasy character named Elbor. This new avatar featured the same amount of expressive capabilities offered by DigiDoug, just in a less realistic humanoid body.

Although Roble maintains a positive outlook on the future impact this technology could have in terms of cinema and live events, he ends his talk with a warning:

Image Credit: TED / Sapling Foundation

“I’ve been working in visual effects for a long time, and I’ve known for a long time that with enough effort, we can fool anyone about anything,” adds Roble. “What this stuff and deepfake is doing is making it easier and more accessible to manipulate video, just like Photoshop did for manipulating images, some time ago.”

“We’re on the cusp of being able to interact with digital humans that are strikingly real, whether they’re being controlled by a person or a machine. And like all new technology these days, it’s going to come with some serious and real concerns that we have to deal with. But I am just so really excited about the ability to bring something that I’ve seen only in science fiction for my entire life into reality.”

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