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WebTV founder touts new film-and-video animation

Steve Perlman says new system can generate "photo real" animated figures quicker, cheaper than current technology.

Web-to-television pioneer Steve Perlman on Monday will unveil what he says is an animation breakthrough, creating "photo real" humans far quicker and cheaper than current technology.

Perlman sold his WebTV, a set-top box device that allowed people to surf the Internet on their TV sets, to Microsoft for $425 million in 1997. Now his San Francisco-based company Mova plans to unveil its Contour Reality Capture System at Siggraph, the giant computer graphics showcase in Boston.

A photo real character is an animated figure meant to look and act human, as do those in films like "The Polar Express" or computer games like "The Godfather." For years, animators have tried to create human characters that make their products more realistic, but the technology never has been perfected. Some industry watchers now wonder if pursuing a photo real character is worth it.

Perlman thinks it is. Four years ago he set out to create cameras, computers and lighting to make photo real characters, and working in his garage (he claimed) and with his own money (he won't say how much), he believes he did it.

"I wanted to do something that I wasn't sure whether it was going to work," Perlman told Reuters ahead of Siggraph.

Perlman says Contour can reduce the cost of videotaping humans and creating animated figures by 100-times. A scene now costing $100,000 to $200,000 using "motion capture technology," Perlman claims Contour can do for $1,000 to $2,000.

He added that Contour can reduce the time to create the same scene from several days down to five or so minutes.

Beyond photo real
But whether animators truly want photo real humans is his biggest hurdle to cross if Contour is to become a success.

"Now, animators are trying to go beyond what was originally motion capture and push the technology back into the animation realm," said Ramin Zahed, editor of Animation Magazine.

Motion capture is now the state-of-the-art for videotaping humans then transferring their movement to computers where animated characters are drawn around a skeletal structure that is created from data collected by the cameras and computers.

"The Polar Express" in 2004 used motion capture. Tom Hanks dressed in a special blue suit and had dots glued to his face and body. He ran around on a stage, acted his parts as Hero Boy and Conductor while cameras tracked the dots, taped his movements and transferred the data to computers.

The movie cost $165 million to make, and over time took in nearly $300 million at global box offices. Making videotapes is similar, although costs range from $10 million to $20 million.

Financially, "Polar Express" was a success, but critically it was mostly a misfire because of human characters that many reviewers felt were cold or stiff and had unexpressive eyes.

"The Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" in 2001 fared far worse for basically the same reason: lifeless human characters. It cost $137 million to make and took in $85 million globally.

As a result, animators recently have turned away from trying to create photo real characters. Such is the case with the currently playing "Monster House," which used actors and motion capture technology for human movement, but animators drew caricatures of people for the kids in the movie.

Perlman thinks he has the photo real solution with Contour, which eschews suits and dots for phosphorous makeup, digital cameras, fluorescent lights and off-the-shelf computer parts.

Now, Hollywood awaits and Zahed, who is attending Soggraph this week, said he'll drop by and take a look.