Making computer animation more human

08 March 2012

Academy Award winner Mark Sagar is starting a new laboratory at The University of Auckland that is set to take computer animation to a new level.

“Imagine a machine that can not only express what is on its mind, but also allows you to glimpse the mental imagery that it is constantly changing in its mind,” says Dr Sagar.

The Laboratory for Animate Technologies, based in the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), will create interactive autonomously animated systems which “will help define the next generation of human-computer interaction and facial animation“.

Industries to benefit from research and technology created in Dr Sagar’s lab could include those where establishing emotional rapport is important such as education, advertising, and the entertainment industry.

Dr Sagar says his Lab will create an experience that will allow visitors to engage with “smart technology” that appears conscious, emotive and thinking. “One question we are pursuing is: can technology be made more appealing if it is more natural?”

Dr Sagar says the technology created in his lab will simulate the lifelike qualities and the observable natural reflexes and behaviour of someone engaging with another person.

”Our computational models of emotion, perception, learning and memory will generate highly expressive realistic – or fantastic – imagery which engages the user on a visceral, emotional level,“ he says.

The Lab will also develop advanced computer vision techniques to track facial expression and behaviour. These techniques will be used with other modes of sensory input to allow the smart machine to sense its world.

Visitors to the Lab will engage with expressive interfaces including realistic faces and also be able to see the inner workings or underlying “brain activity” generating the machines’ responses.

“We are building a collaborative modular model of the face and brain, a brain and face Lego with swappable and re-shapable parts. Both scientists and artists who want an interactive context to test and visualise their work can design, combine, integrate, inspect, react, be reacted to, and redesign," says Dr Sagar.

The Lab will be developed using state-of-the-art projective computer graphics and brain-based computational models. Its foundations are being built by Dr Sagar and others in the University with expertise in areas such as computer and the neural sciences, engineering, architecture and the arts. The Lab will work on both blue skies research and commercial applications.

Dr Sagar previously worked for Weta Digital where he created technology for achieving the realistic appearance and performance capture animation of digital characters such as Avatar’s Na’vi people. His pioneering work in computer-generated faces was recognised with two consecutive Oscars at the 2010 and 2011 Sci-tech awards, a branch of the Academy Awards that recognises movie science and technological achievements. Dr Sagar will continue to work with Weta on selected projects.

The former medical researcher started his career building computer simulations of the human eye for virtual surgery. He has a Bachelor of Science and a PhD in Engineering from The University of Auckland.

His postgraduate research involved a landmark study in how to develop an anatomically correct virtual eye and realistic models of biomechanically simulated anatomy. It was one of the first examples of how lifelike human features could be created on a screen by combining computer graphics with mathematics and human physiology.

Professor Peter Hunter, Director of the ABI, says he feels very fortunate to have Dr Sagar working at the Institute.

“Mark is an exceptional researcher, scientist and artist with immense vision and passion. He has made a huge contribution to the motion picture industry in a relatively short time and I expect that he will continue to excel here and abroad with his work at the Laboratory for Animate Technologies.”

• Dr Sagar is a recipient of the University of Auckland’s 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award. He will be presented with the award at a dinner held at The University of Auckland tomorrow (Friday 9 March). He is also speaking at Auckland Live, an event held at the Maidment Theatre in central Auckland tonight (8 March).