It could also create a whole generation of cheap "synthespians" - actors who will do anything, even the most dangerous stunts, without demanding more pay or days off because they will not exist outside a computer.
Developed by the Turing Institute, in Glasgow, the "whole body camera" is at present used to help surgeons create "virtual heads" of patients so they can plan complex facial operations to leave as few scars as possible. It captures a three- dimensional view of a person using a tent-frame system of cameras that feed data into a computer. This then reconstructs the exact contours of the person photographed.
The scientists who developed the system realised that it would also be ideal for capturing the three-dimensional detail of living actors to create computer-generated versions. By choosing people who physically resemble dead actors - such as Monroe or Dean - they could in effect resurrect others.
The system goes on show in London next month, introduced by a virtual David Bowie and the Scottish scientists hope to take it into films, to produce computer-generated stars.
American technology for virtual actors costs about about pounds 300,000 and requires the actor to remain perfectly still for 15 seconds, otherwise the image is blurred. It was used for Tom Cruise's antics in Mission Impossible, but in general the only computer-generated film stars have been dinosaurs and spaceships. The Turing Institute's system costs just pounds 50,000 and requires an exposure of only 1/30th of a second.
The institute has teamed up with the National Film and Television School's media laboratory, Createc, in London where the first version of the camera will be installed next month.
Peter Martin, head of production at Createc, said computer-generated actors would have to overcome the discerning eye of viewers. "Most of us are not great experts on the way dinosaurs move, but we are very critical about humans, so we must get their movements and expressions exactly right. This new technology will help us do that."Reuse content