MIT offers futuristic film technology

Hollywood is too slow to invest in new technology — that was the chief complaint heard during a daylong symposium held by the MIT Media Lab on Friday.

As John Underkoffler, chief scientist of Oblong Industries, noted, the major studios have put the exact same amount into major research in the last five years: nothing. “There’s no line item,” he said.

Instead, the studios rely on outsiders to present them with innovations. Some, like CGI, were enthusiastically adopted. Others, like digital projection of movies, thus eliminating the need for physical prints, have been bandied about for years with minimal effect.

Researchers at the Media Lab can offer some clues as to what the next big things may be, but to make these prototypes a reality, some studio or production company will have to be willing to put up the money.

One such item could become an industry standard for film editing within the next few years, if money can be found to improve the current working model of Storied Navigation. It is an editing database and search system developed by professors Henry Lieberman and Glorianna Davenport along with recent graduate Edward Chen. It allows an editor to write a simple descriptive sentence for every shot that has been filmed and then use a search program that will call up shots even if the sentences do not match. “That’s the problem with tags and search engines,” said Lieberman.

A shot of “The professor lectures the class” might be found by typing in “Professor talking” or “Class has a discussion.”

Search parameters allow one to refine a search not only by who’s in the shot but by means of several other criteria, including what action is taking place and even what the theme of the shot is.

Another area of research is robotics, where the late special effects wizard Stan Winston partnered with professor Cynthia Breazeal to develop robots that could learn and receive verbal instructions. According to Breazeal, the idea — from a filmmaker’s perspective — is to have a robot that operates with a single mind, instead of through a team of puppeteers and programmers who have to choreograph and collaborate on every move. “The director should be able to direct it,” said Breazeal.

Breazeal and Winston’s production house developed Leonardo, a “Gremlin”-like robot that recognizes people, facial expressions and can even learn from experience in performing simple tasks.

Breazeal noted that people will still be at the core of any such robotic performance, whether it is an actor providing the model, an active puppeteer coordinating movement, or an animator creating actions and expressions that can then be programmed into the device. Some of the core technologies developed by Breazeal’s MIT team and Winston’s production company are already available for movies. Breazeal noted Winston’s belief that roboticized characters will always be part of the mix because actors and directors prefer to work with physically present characters rather than a blank space where a CG creature will be added later.

Some of the most cutting-edge technology is being developed in camerawork. Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor in “camera culture,” is currently working on what he calls “6-D photography” that would go beyond current 3-D films and even holographic images. The difference between a 3-D image and a hologram is that one can move around the latter image on a horizontal plane and see it from different angles. What 6-D would do is create the full illusion of the actual object by having it reflect light from outside the image. For example, a director could use a 6-D image on the set and actually light it the way he would light any real person or object physically present.

Raskar, who will be offering a demonstration of the technology at Siggraph in August, cautions that 6-D won’t be in use anytime soon. The current cost for such an image is $30 a pixel, so a single frame of a widescreen image would cost in the neighborhood of $30 million.

“Clearly, this is cutting edge,” said Raskar, who said it will be some time before a director like Steven Spielberg will have this technology available for one of his films.

The MIT Media Lab symposium was held in honor of the 24th anniversary of the Media Lab and the ankling of co-founder Davenport.

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