How accurate are Swiss-made humans?
Nadia Thalmann is the founder and director of the Swiss institute MIRAlab. A techno-scientist, she created the famous 3D animated model of Marilyn Monroe, as well as her own personal data_set as a 1:1 (one to one) image of her mathematician-programmer self.
TART~Jahrmann met professor Thalmann in summer 97, at the 3D avatar workshop Isolation/Communication held in Topolcianky, Slovakia. Professor Thalmann gave the opening lecture of the workshop and a follow-up question and answer session for a limited number of workshop participants.
Professor Thalmann at her lecture in Topolcianky. In this working situation, she was open to questions about the ethics in virtual cloning, a topic which she normally has an allergic reaction to.
MIRAlab, where research means creativity!
Margarete Jahrmann questioned the main sentence that describes the research laboratory: Do you also mean the creative programmer?
Yes, answered Thalmann. But, the experienced interviewee wanted to see her work presented mainly as an interdisciplinary achievement. Thalmann’s MIRAlab is a research center within the University of Geneva, Switzerland. It is known as a world leader lab in the fields of VR, telepresence and 3D animation. The front woman –and as well on its front homepage on-line– is the digitally cloned Marilyn Monroe. Recently, the digital clone of institute founder Thalmann, herself, has been introduced on-line.
Nadia Thalmann looking at her virtual alter ego
An explosive mix of euphoria, infatuation (Nadia: "I still love Marilyn") and mathematical high end programming results in Nadia Thalmann’s personal vision of VR worlds. Although internationally commercial success has not been directly received, her work has been shown as a seminal reference in a number of publications, and at several conferences, namely SIGGRAPH ’95.
Thalmann’s definition of the new type of creative scientist is a consequence of her ongoing evaluation of the conditions of the commercial 3D and avatar industry. For her art research and production, she sees no possible resources (i.e.: support money). She says, "although I have not succeeded with my artistic talent in the traditional sense, I have found the possibility with the help of computer technology to become creative, and to create my own worlds." Her analysis shows that one third of all grants are research funds for the telecommunications industry, for the development of telepresence, 3D meetings, and virtual industry. The second third goes toward entertainment, and the third to science.
The different research areas of MIRAlab
Her personal motivation for research is the possibility to become creative with the help of computer technologies, and to create individual personal worlds. She graduated in Biology, Psychology, and finished in Biochemistry. She received her Ph.D. at the University Geneva in the field of Quantum Mechanics, for which she created a detailed 3D visualization of the theoretical work of Schroedinger (Schroedinger’s Cat). Following this, she took the position of full professor at the University of Montreal.
Since that time, she has collaborated with her husband, Daniel Thalmann. They developed MIRA-Language, the ancestor of object oriented programming languages. Their abstract 3D animation Dream Flight (1982) provided one of the first ideas for a possible 3D world, and is a work for which they received prizes and their initial recognition in science and art. Rendezvous a Montreal was a demo movie shown in 1987, on hundreds of TV stations, complete with a synthetic Bogart and a 3D Marilyn.
Virtual Marilyn starring at MIRAlab.
The laboratory for computer sciences which has become the @home for the Thalmanns — the real and virtual one, was founded in 1989. The extensive research team is international, and is a mix of Ph.D. students on the specific topics of 3D simulation, facial animation, virtual reality and telepresence, medial simulation, and interactive networked VR worlds.
Realistic image modeling of facial expression
The virtually cloned Mariliyn, with which Thalmann became famous, is comprised of 8,000 polygons. JLD Operators (Joint Dependent Local Deformation Operators), were the concept for the programming language for the simulation of the formation of body textures and surfaces (such as the clothes and hair on Marilyn’s 3D body). Daniel Thalmann was focused especially on the mathematical algorithms for modeling and graphic representation of the body movements.
Simulation of clothing deformation
The beginning research was in 1982, which was still in 1987 absolute pioneer work. With their research, the Thalmann’s created the basics of toady’s 3D modeling programs, like Alias Wavefront or other applications.
Series of Marliyn for facial expressions
Besides concrete mathematical models, descriptions for naturalistic looking bodies, there are now –as well– interactive psychological descriptions for the synthetic actors in development.
How Real must the virtual world be?
Is the realistic imaging/representation of the real life appropriate for dataspace? The naturalistic representation , imitation, or creation of humans in a data format is not just a technical ie, but also an aesthetic, ethical, and even a moral question to some.
Abstract mathematical processes were represented by the movement of clothes and clothing. The changes in clothing in real-time are rendered for a moving Marilyn.
The answering of the question, if the representatives in virtual dataspace means that avatars shall be realistic images of the real life world, becomes more and more urgent. Are we happy with standardized avatar sets, or should there be completely new identities in dataspace?
Binary models of worlds offer –in contrast to biological worlds– the possibility to perfect the imperfections of real life situations. Nevertheless, by building digital worlds, at least a good possibility is offered to fantasize about. Positivistic and euphoric ideas about science entreats VR to change reality, which is full of mistakes. When it is for an exact replica of biologic reality, the request to construct an electronic world requires a tremendous amount of work. This was made clear when Thalmann referred to her work of the past decade, especially when she discussed the coding of a model for the human hand, which took her team 5 years to complete. The fascination about nature, for such a woman, is partially based on the fact that nature is free. And, using nature as her basic element, she can write her own life script, and live within the frames of her own film. She is a "one of a kind" and we doubt that her personality can ever be reproduced digitally, even if her body can.
Why, For What, and Who She Is…
"Don’t ask me why!" answered Nadia Thalmann on the question "why" she wants to create virtual humans.
The wish for a perfect smart world was the booster for Nadia Thalmann’s research. To the question "why would she want to create virtual humans", she does not answer. "Don’t ask me why!" she says. Additionally, she does not want to discuss philosophical questions, nor to take a position on the European moralistic critique on the making of virtual humans. In these areas, her experiences during the past 15 years have not been very good. Early in her career she was attacked in Europe. It was not until she moved to Montreal, Canada, that she could really begin to work out her ideas of virtuality. She was also accepted well in Japan, where she has spent a lot of time working over the years. In her point of view, the Japanese are much more open to the ideas of artificial humans and humanoids, and what is more important, they use the research results immediately, both commercially and for the entertainment industry.
Kyoko Date, with her Internet presence and millions of singles hit tunes sold, proves that the 100% virtual idol is a reality. When offered a deal from producers to sell her 3D Marilyn for use in a porno movie, she refused. This idea, it seems, is immediately considered to be a natural result of the creation of virtual humans, and uploaded bodies. Miriam English, who is building ElectraCity, a 3D world being created in Australia, has already asked questions pertaining to this problem, by saying:
How would you feel about some stranger (guy), putting your face on-line, and …?
Nadia, however, thinks about a more perfect world. She is one of those personalities who mixes her euphoric belief in research and science with a positivism of professors who lean towards a Faustian Homunculi creation, with the shiny eyes of a small girl in her own dreamworld.