CIA technology will map your face

Big Stage stole the stage at the Intel CES keynote.

BigStage founder Jonathan Strietzel mugs in front of Steven Harwell's avatar. Rafe Needleman / CNET

LAS VEGAS-- Intel CEO Paul Otellini's CES keynote was sparkling. In contrast to Bill Gates' pastel portrait of the future, Otellini presented a concrete vision of a personal, reactive Web, and the challenges to creating it (Silicon, Infrastructure, Context, and Interface). For a full rundown, see Dan Farber's writeup on ZDNet.

Intel loves where the Web is going. The more interactive and personal it gets, the more processing power is required and the more new chips Intel sells, for both servers and local workstations. The most interesting (and newest) product that Otellini brought to the stage in his keynote was an automatic avatar builder made by BigStage.

BigStage creates a model of anyone's head by using just three photos--head-on, rotated a little, and rotated a little more. The company processes these pictures on its own servers and ends up with a model that knows which pixels your eyes are (so it can move and blink them), where your mouth is, and so it. In the Intel keynote demo, BigStage found Jonathan Strietzel created an avatar of Smash Mouth singer Steven Harwell. It was eerily good--much better and less creepy than avatars I've seen previously.

The technology comes from a CIA-funded project at the University of California. It was originally intended for scanning surveillance cams, since at its core it measures the three-dimensional geometry of key points on a face, for example between eyes, or the shape of a person's cheekbone. The fact that the algorithm can extract a complete 3D model from only three images, and with what is now reasonably inexpensive computation (this is where Intel comes in) is what makes it commercially viable.

BigStage hosts the avatars and is looking at several ways to get them out onto the Web, to populate the virtual world with facsimiles of real people, instead of the cartoons that live there now. People will likely be able to create widgets of themselves that they can embed on blogs and social networks, and perhaps in existing virtual worlds like Second Life and gaming networks like Xbox Live. The company is also doing deals with brands and music labels. Strietzel told me that a big public product will be available that lets users put their mug in the "most popular music video of all time." (Thriller, right?)

I hope the company delivers on its demo. Look for public examples of BigStage technology in April or May.

See also: Gizmoz, Digimask.

 

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