Animated conversations

You can add character to your chat by letting a cartoon do the talking. Janet Robson on the latest virtual system
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Indy Lifestyle Online
By early next year you could be using the Internet to have earnest conversations with a cartoon. Actually, you will be talking to a friend, but thanks to new British technology the friend will appear on your screen as a lion, a fluffy bunny or perhaps a Klingon. And you, in turn, will appear as the cartoon character of your choice.

The gizmo that makes this possible is the Virtual Impersonator, a virtual reality animation and sound recognition system developed by TeleVirtual. "An animated version of yourself could become the ultimate personality cachet for Netties," says TeleVirtual's Tim Child. "It would be like a personal numberplate."

All you need is Superscape virtual reality software, a microphone, a Pentium computer and some photo-texture mapping software. Alternatively, you could buy a new personality off the peg, or commission a company such as TeleVirtual to create your new animated persona.

The system works by using a pre-rendered cartoon character that is manipulated by computer. It uses random facial movements, but what brings the Impersonator to life is that the mouth of the character is animated in real time. The person operating it speaks into a microphone hooked up to a computer loaded with VR software: as he does so, the character's lips move.

A TeleVirtual Impersonator called Cube already has a job co-presenting the new BBC television children's show Total Reality. Although it might just seem like a gimmick, the Impersonator has some serious benefits for the animation business, because it allows a cartoon character, traditionally a laborious and expensive creation, to be produced "live" cheaply and quickly.

TeleVirtual can create a new Impersonator character for less than pounds 10,000, and existing personalities can be hired for the day off-the-shelf, to be used for a corporate presentation or trade show, for instance.

An Impersonator can be operated by anyone, either live or from a pre- recorded soundtrack. "It could be used for TV phone-ins," says Mr Child. "Another proposal is for a cartoon karaoke, allowing the singer to appear as an animated Elvis, for instance."

TeleVirtual has been creating VActors, or virtual actors, for some time. The first one to appear on television was Ratz the cat, which became co- presenter of BBC children's programmes in spring last year, and another character, Ice, now appears with Cube on Total Reality.

A VActor is more sophisticated than an Impersonator because it allows a cartoon character to be animated entirely in real-time. The character is created by fitting a real actor with a waldo, or special helmet, as well as a number of sensors fixed to different points on the face. As the actor talks, smiles or frowns, the sensors detect the facial movements and translate them into animation. Similar apparatus can be used to animate body movements. The first systems were mechanical, with the sensors physically wired up; these have now been replaced by optical systems which use wireless stick-on markers and infra-red cameras.

VActors are realistic, but expensive. Ratz the cat cost about pounds 150,000 in hardware and software - and he is only a head. "The VActor system needs a Silicon Graphics work station," says Mr Child, "whereas the Impersonator only needs a high-end Pentium." This, he says, is why it should be ideal for providing visual images on the Internet.