How BT can now turn me into the greatest disco dancer in the world

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The Independent Online
MOVE OVER, Lara Croft. Yesterday I stepped into a brightly lit booth resembling a Star Trek transporter. Within minutes my computerised form was loping around a basketball court, doing underwater somersaults and disco-dancing in an unsettlingly loose-limbed fashion.

My foray into cyberspace was a preview of British Telecom's "Avatar", a technology that will appear in the Millennium Dome but could revolutionise computer games, Internet shopping and even TV serials

Becoming an avatar takes about 90 seconds. Inside the transporter booth, you are photographed from each side. A computer compares your measurements, estimated from the pictures, against a standard androgynous figure consisting of a "wire frame" model with about 3,000 elements.

These elements are stretched or shrunk where your shape differs from the standard to create a pared-down computer version of you. The amount of data collected is small - about 500 kilobytes - but this can then be superimposed on computerised movement sequences derived from other people.

Dancing, swimming, playing basketball and, in fact, doing anything you can imagine becomes possible for your avatar.

A likely first use is computer games. "Once Netheads get hold of this they will go mad" said Matt Lawson, manager of the Avatar project at BT, which started last December. "People don't want to be Lara Croft in a game anymore - they want the person in the game to be them."

But the Millennium Dome exhibit, which will be able to scan hundreds of people an hour, is only a starting point. Mr Lawson foresees people quite quickly coming used to creating avatars of themselves to send to friends, to take part in interactive computer games, or even for Internet shopping.

"You could create your avatar in a booth in a shop very cheaply and then see what clothes really look best on you," he said. By refining the system with a finer mesh on the wire frame, and comparing it with the precise measurements of clothes on an e-commerce site, the problem of deciding whether a suit or dress would actually fit you could be solved without trying it on.

Millennium Dome visitors will be able to bring their avatars home by downloading them from a specially created website, where the data will be stored with a password assigned when they visited the Dome. The ease with which such data can be transferred will have enormous effects in a few years on TV series and actors, said Tim Child of Televirtual, which has been working with BT.

"One of our projects is with the Globe Theatre in London, where they can't meet the demand for people who want to get in to speed performances," he said.

Rather than broadcasting performances by video, it will be simpler - and use far less bandwidth - if the actors and stage are transformed into avatars and downloaded before the performance on to an audience's computers. Then the only data that needs to be sent during the performance is that of motion and sound. "It will allow us to generate visual drama at the low cost you would expect of radio," said Mr Child. Such a shift, creating "synthespians", could have a radical affect on acting. But, said Mr Child, most houses with computers already have sufficiently powerful technology to take advantage of it, because most PCs can handle three-dimensional animation using built-in software.

BT views the avatar work as unfinished but exciting. The system still makes some mistakes in creating the avatar from the photos. Long hair and knee-length skirts pose particular problems for recreating the lines of the face and the hips.

The human eye notices subtleties of movement that computers miss. I asked who provided the bases for the disco dancing sequences? For a man, they seemed extraordinarily lithe - had Peter Mandelson stepped in to help his old project? "Er, no," said Mr Lawson. "I saw it being filmed. It was a woman." Ah well, they always said I danced like a girl.