"They never get old," says legendary talent agent Ari Emanuel, who is encouraging his WME clients to digitally scan their faces with a technology that allows them to act in roles at their current age for the rest of their life.
While the technology to digitally archive a celebrity’s face and overlay it on a younger actor has been around for years, the expensive storage and computing power necessary to render the mammoth data files limited the technology to the fleeting needs of big-budget blockbusters. Now, Otoy, a hidden gem of a startup tucked away in Los Angeles, has solved the processing and storage problem with a breakthrough in processing power, making it economically viable to archive the appearances of actors en masse in their own private bank of youth.
How it Works
Capturing a realistic representation of a face isn’t as simple as snapping a picture in good light. "Skin is a unique material," says Otoy’s Academy Award-winning technologist, Tim Hawkins. "It’s a little bit like a cloud,"—a mesh of tissue and blood vessels reflecting light in a way that gives facial complexion a textured luminosity, over patches of bumpy skin and subtle shadows. Indeed, it’s the lack of detail that gives CGI-created faces a suspicious sense of unrealistic perfection, tipping them into the dreaded "uncanny valley."
Otoy’s solution is to bask a human face in 360 degrees of bright light, which allows a computer to recreate the effects of light at any angle and any intensity of luminosity, from an early-morning sunrise to a full moon. Actors step into large hollow sphere, surrounded by dozens of high-wattage bulbs. Six high-resolution professional cameras stationed in four corners at eye-level snap photos, as a series of light patterns is projected onto the actor’s face. The surreal, eye-tearing experience only takes about five minutes to capture a blank stare expression (see a video of me unsuccessfully trying to keep my eyes still during the process below).
The magic of that capture technology, LightStage, is how a single actor, Armie Hammer, played both Winklevoss twins simultaneously in the Facebook biography, The Social Network (see before and after photos of Hammer’s LightStage-captured face overlayed on his body-double below).
Should an actor want to express more than just a blank stare, the LightStage can capture facial expressions of all contortions. Running through the full catalog of human expressions, the Facial Action Coding System, users act out every possible dramatic and silly expression, as LightStage captures facial muscles stretched in enough ways that a computer can "puppeteer" any emotion in the future.
A Brilliant New Technology
The prodigy behind the technology is Otoy CEO, Jules Urbach, a self-taught computer programmer who designed the software that super-charges a cheap graphics card with the rendering power of a supercomputer. Instead of processing tasks one a time, Otoy’s software opens up the computing pipeline like a multi-lane highway, permitting multiple tasks simultaneously (what programmers refer to as "parallel processing"). Without Otoy’s tech, a supercomputer "typically spends dozens of hours per machine to render just a single [frame] on films like Transformers," explains Otoy President, Alissa Grainger, who first caught up with Fast Company at Singularity University’s executive training conference in Los Angeles. At Otoy’s ever-expanding headquarters in downtown L.A., I witnessed Transformers-quality rendering in
real time on a iPad, streaming from their cloud servers over a Wi-Fi connection.
Even with this impressive improvement in processing power, tech-savvy readers will rightly call out that even a blazing fast Internet connection couldn’t possibly download the huge data file of a cinema-quality image in real time. True. So, Urbach also designed a new data compression algorithm that scrunches the data "several hundreds" times smaller than, for instance, what Sony Image Works used to store CGI from the Spider-Man movies, according to Grainger.
Otoy previously made headlines when it proved what was thought to be impossible, streaming an Xbox game seamlessly between different types of devices.
The implications of this technology are far-reaching. For instance, Urbach estimates that his compressed streaming algorithm could cut Netflix bandwidth needs by roughly half. Given that Netflix hogs up to 32% all all U.S. bandwidth, Otoy could potentially free up a sizable chunk of Internet, if it were to partner with the biggest names in video streaming.
A Business of Possibilities
With the processing and storage problem solved, Otoy’s hole-in-the-wall LightStage studio in Burbank has already become a conveyor belt of A-list celebrities and athletes seeking its digital fountain of youth. Though Urbach is insistent that facial scans be the intellectual property of each individual person, clients still need Otoy’s patented technology to store and stream their digital doubles in manageable chunks. As a result, Otoy has, overnight, become the only business in town for this kind of service, and has attracted some of Silicon Valley’s top investors for a trip down South.
But, for the Otoy team, the real magic of digital doubles is yet to be realized. Legendary actors such as Tom Hanks would be able to play younger parts years after receiving their Medicare cards. Young actors could licenses out their likeness to magazines, rather than have to churn out photo shoots and profiles during the grueling promotion of an
upcoming film. Even deceased actors could be digitally resurrected.
Otoy’s biggest business potential may not be in serving the Hollywood elite, but in democratizing access to supercomputing power for the growing industry of web, low-budget, and amateur filmmaking. The company recently acquired a popular rendering software, Octane, and revealed to Fast Company that it is offering up its LightStage
data and real-time rendering power as a cloud service, complete with plug-ins for the widely used production software of Autodesk, including Autodesk Maya.
Ultimately, the dream for Otoy’s founder is a Star Trek-like holodeck, where a 3-D virtual environment looks as realistic as the analog world. Such a breakthrough would require more than just LightStage. Otoy is tackling this dream one chunk at a time, and we’ll have more details soon as it releases technology that could disrupt the entertainment, app, PC, and video game industries. Stay tuned.