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Starring You On The Big Screen

Forbes, CES 2008

Forbes, CES 2008

Louis Hau 1.9.08

CES 2008

Las Vegas, NV

How would you like to give yourself a starring role in your favorite videogame? Or music video? Or your favorite movie scene of all time?

South Pasadena, Calif., start-up Big Stage wants to help you do just that. The company has developed a technology that will allow anyone with a standard digital camera to create a life-like avatar of themselves. They will then be able to place that avatar on a blog, Web site or social-network page as a fun way of identifying themselves.

Even better: with a little know-how, users will be able to insert their virtual selves into a digital media file–or, say, place a 3D image of Intel (nasdaq: INTC ) Chief Executive Paul Otellini in the music video for Smash Mouth’s 1997 hit “Walkin’ On The Sun,” as Big Stage Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Jonathan Strietzel did during Otellini’s CES keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show on Monday.

Big Stage’s technology has its roots in government-funded research in 3D imaging done at the University of Southern California. The work takes what had been a complex, time-consuming image-creation process and boils it down to a consumer-friendly means to create personalized avatars.

The company’s technology is currently focused on reproducing facial images, but full-body avatars are in the pipeline. Its avatar system will be available to the public in the second quarter of this year.

On Tuesday, Strietzel needed only a few minutes to create a 3D avatar of me and superimpose my face over that of Harrison Ford’s in a scene from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. There I was, in a dank room, slyly replacing a coveted idol head with a small sack of sand. Damn, I was good.

As startling as it can be to see a moving 3D image of yourself, these are very early days for the technology, which is bound to become more compelling as the ability to simulate intelligence improves to create an even more realistic digital you.

What sorts of revenue-generating applications could a life-like avatar have? You don’t have to think too hard to come up with a pack: Videogame publishers could license the technology to give customers the ability to place their avatar inside a game. Similar uses could be attractive to online virtual worlds and social networks. And here’s one of Strietzel’s favorites: Allowing customers to insert themselves into famous movie scenes could give studios a new way of generating fresh revenues from existing film assets.

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Startup News: Intel In The 3-D Fast Lane

Startup – Strietzel’s Big Stage at CES 2008

Intel Keynote Speech at CES 08'

David M. Ewalt, 01.08.08, 2:35 AM ET

LAS VEGAS –

How do you show off your products to a crowd of slavering gadget geeks when most of what you make is smaller than a thumbnail and doesn’t do anything more exciting than route electrons?

That’s the problem that faced Intel Chief Exective Paul Otellini, Monday’s keynote speaker at the International Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. His solution? Show off other people’s cutting-edge gadgets, talk about how Intel’s microchips make them possible and wrap it all up in some rock music.

The keynote began on a bleak note as video screens ran a painfully forced cover version of the classic 1979 Buggles song “Video Killed The Radio Star.” Cartoon figures ran around with cell phones and laptops as the song dropped corny metaphors and bad rhymes. “Internet shook the broadcasting star,” went some of the lyrics. “The Internet came and set us free … check out our mobility.”

When he took the stage, Otellini told the crowd that the song reflected his view that smart networks and consumer electronics would drive the next generation of the Internet, making it into something predictive, proactive and context aware.

To demonstrate, Otellini showed off a mobile device on a set designed to look like a Beijing street corner. A built-in camera on the gadget captured live video of a street sign and a storefront. Then, using “augmented reality” technology from Total Immersion Software, the device translated the Mandarin characters on the sign into English, and in real time, super-imposed the characters on the device screen with English translations. With a push of a button, a menu popped up offering further information, downloadable from the web, including video reviews and blog discussion.

The technology echoed the demo given by Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFTnews people ) Chairman Bill Gates in his Sunday keynote, and the audience seemed impressed on both occasions. But what does the gizmo have to do with Intel? The software and the applications seen were real, explained Otellini, but ran on several servers offstage. For now, portable hardware can’t hack such a complicated application. “Doing this will require exponentially more powerful processors that require exponentially less power,” Otellini said. Intel, he pledged, will invent the chips that can help usher in this new era.

Later, Otellini brought on stage an executive from software start-up eJamming. The company’s software allows musicians to connect online via a social network and collaborate in musical performances and recordings. They were joined on stage by Steve Harwell, lead singer of rock band Smash Mouth, who used the software to connect with his bandmates over the Internet and perform a few verses of their hit “Walkin’ On The Sun.”

While it was interesting to see members of a band connecting and performing regardless of geography, it wasn’t much of a performance, since the other members of the band were only represented as thumbnails and music waveforms on a computer screen. So next, Otellini brought out Jonathan Strietzel, co-founder of start-up BigStage. The company is currently developing software that allows users to create three-dimensional digital avatars of themselves.

It’s intriguing software: take three digital photos of your face, each at a slightly offset angle, and upload them to BigStage. Thirty to 60 seconds later, you get a well-rendered virtual version of your face, which can be easily customized with different haircuts, jewelry and expressions. The digital avatars are animated, so they turn their heads and blink realistically. No one would ever think it was the real you–but it’s surprisingly cool and easy.

To complete the virtual exercise and close out his keynote, Otellini brought on Andrew Tschesnok, founder and chief executive of Organic Motion. His company has developed motion-capture software that doesn’t require the “ping-pong-ball-bodysuit” worn by actors in movies like Beowulf. Instead, 14 video cameras capture an ordinary scene in front of a white wall, and translate the action into 3-D animation. Moving over to a side stage, Harwell was able to perform another tune–and this time, the main screen of the keynote stage showed a full-on virtual Smash Mouth, with digital avatars of each band member reflecting their real-world movements.

I have to admit it was all very cool–exactly the sort of telepresence that we need to make all those sci-fi fantasies of cyberspace happen. How cool will it be when you can have a couple of webcams on your desk, and a virtual 3-D version of you will walk, talk and perform in your favorite online hangout or video game?