Monday, July 14, 2008

As predicted virtual humans are becoming popular. Unfortunately the most common ones are the brain dead ones on the phone. And then there are the virtual human actors that creep us out, like in Polar Express and Beowulf...although the latter had definite improvement. It seems the film makers, especially Robert Zemecks, just don't understand the psychological factors involved in creating believable virtual actors. It's doable with todays technology. The problem is that they rely too much on technology and not enough on the art of virtual human design. They don't do anything with the personality to overcome the botox faces that creep us out.

It's possible to write scripts for virtual human actors that will help them overcome the limitations on motion capture, but more than that, we need hand animated nuances that are lost entirely in the MoCap.

Thankfully, Dr. Paul Debevec who's contributed so much to the vfx industry, is teaming up with Image Metrics in Venice, California, to help bring in a new generation in face motion capture. Done at extremely high resolutions on a pixel tracking basis, the results should virtually eliminate the Botox look. I understand some of this new technology is being used in the Benjamin Buttons movie and that we won't be able to tell the virtual actor from the real one. I'll believe it when I see it as the movie is due for release shortly.
Something very cool. I'm now on the International Board of Advisors for the Digital Design Foundation in Beijing. I'll be working with some legends of our industry helping the Chinese Government to set national standards in education and certification of animators and vfx artists. I'll also be teaching the occasional classes in how to create a killer demo reel and virtual human design. Heres a link to the DDF
I just got back from the Mundos Digitales Conference in A Caruna Spain. Awesome time, great people and amazing food and wine. I fell in love with Spain.

I did a talk entitled "Crossing the Uncanny Divide" about the psychological factors that make us find virtual human actors creepy the more real they look. The second talk was entitled "Creating a Killer Demo Reel" the title pretty much says it all. Most demo reels totally suck and most of us hate looking at them. But exercising a little good judgment, creative initiative and excellence you can create a demo reel that will stand out. The Spanish students were wonderful and I had an very interactive audience. Later we all partied together at a hugh dome overlooking the Atlantic and the oldest lighthouse in Europe, build originally by the Romans. It was quite an experience.

I wanted to thank all the vfx supervisors and animation supervisors who contributed their ideas on what makes a killer Demo. Nearly 30 of them responded. I created a handout sheet with their ideas and had it translated into Spanish for Mundos Digitales.

Next It looks like I'll be hosting the 5D conference in Long Beach, California this Octobe 4-5. It's sponsored by the Art Dirctor's Guild with many partnerships. This one is all about the design and production of immersive narrative media. The brainchild of one of Hollywood's top Production Designers, Alex McDowell, it is a forward looking conference about not only immersive media, but the new collaborative, immersive production environments that virtual work spaces make possible. It's about getting art into the picture earlier (litterally) and having the art lead the way, rather than the technology. I think you'll enjoy it. Got to for more information.

I'll be starting a new column at in New York. Don't have a title yet, but it will be a regular look at the latest trends in film production. It should be lots of fun, informative and maybe a little controversial.

Monday, April 10, 2006

It's been four months and I've been busy writing articles for StudioDaily. I currently reviewing a ton of dvd training courses in film, audio and film effects including 3D animation. Many of them have a narcotic impact on one's brain. Some are excellent. I'm also preparing for my presentation at this year's FMX in Stuttgart Germany. This one will be a look at the global job situation in animation and visual FX. Of interest to Virtual Human's fans is the panel presentation on virtual humans in entertainment. My old friend and coiner of the term "synthespian" Jeff Kleiser will be a speaker along with such notables as David Sproxton of Aardman films (Wallace and Gromit) and Doug Cooper from Dreamworks. Doug is brilliant and likable and fully of intersting info. If you get a chance, you'll have a ball at FMX from May 2 to 5, 2006. Here's the link:

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

It's been a while since I posted...gonna have to do better. I've put up my new personal website OrdinaryMagic where I've added a bunch of links to interesting virtual human stuff as well as Visual FX sites. I'm also a digital artist and my galleries are there as well. Some of you may know that recently I've been the Digital Eye columnist at in Hollywood and contributing editor at STUDIO\Monthly in New York. In addition I've been speaking and publishing work on virtual human design, especially virtual human teachers. I'm consulting on the design of very smart virtual human teachers that can track a child's progress, probe their learning style much much more.

Also if you visit My V-People Book site you'll find lots of resources and two conversational communities. First is the vhumans yahoo list and second is our on-line forums community where you can discuss everything from the nature of consciousness to the potential malicious nature of virtual humans, and everything in between. We've also been working with the ALICE organization, sharing ideas and methodologies for simulating conscious behavior. I'd like to invite you all to visit. You can go directly to the vehemence Forums with this link Virtual Human Forums

Well on to controversy. It appears that the US AID program is subsidizing Eastern European Visual FX houses which then undercut American VFX houses...What's with that? Not only is our Government encouraging big corporations to send highly paid US jobs overseas, they're also subsidizing foreign companies that can undercut our own. Will someone please explain the brilliant economics of that...For us? Sure it's helping the developing world, but at what cost. No only do we pay for it as tax payers, we pay for it with lost jobs. I'm not happy about this. I'm going to write an article about it in VFX World.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

I just read an interesting book entitled "Mind Catcher" by John Darnton. It's a far out look at possible consciousness experiments using machines to provide pathways for the mind...It looks at the mind as separate from the body, and age old controversy. As "Anima" the author proposes that the mind can be separated from the body and that it can travel in a different dimension or medium that may exist on a subatomic level. He suggests that we may be able to provide portals for such transfer. Darnton was inspired to write the book by a personal experience of his mother's. His father was killed in the war and at them moment of his father's death, he appeared before the mother to say goodbye. He remembers this from his childhood.

It would be interesting if such a thing were possible and consciousness could be transferred into a virtual human carcus.


Thursday, September 09, 2004


The August TechFest in Telluride Colorado was a lot of fun. They set up a 2million volt Tesla coil in the middle of mainstreet at night and made lots of lightning. I was one of the featured speakers and brought Sylvie with me. She was a huge hit. We did a second presentation to the children of the town...very bright children I might add. Afterwards I had an flock of kids following me everywhere I went. Then I did a book signing at the local bookstore. It was a sell out...with many of the kids dragging their parents in and insisting on getting an autographed copy of Virtual Humans. I've been on Adkins and was very happy to go off it for a few days. I must say Telluride is an awesomely beautiful place with very sophicated resturants. If you ever go there, stay at the New Sheridan Hotel. The rooms are reminiscent of the old days and very comfortable. It also has the best included breakfast in the county.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

V-teachers will make learning more efficient.


My old friend and mentor Fred S. Keller was a very wise man who understood learning at a deeper level than most of us ever will. Fred had achieved a vast state of maturity when I was privileged to receive weekly doses of his wisdom at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. Fred came up with something he called the: Personalized System of Instruction or PSI. (Affectionately known as the Keller method) It has a core philosophy that includes the following four features:

"(1) Go-at-your-own-pace, which permits a student to move through the course at a speed commensurate with his ability and other demands upon his time.
"(2) The unit-perfection requirement for advance, which lets the student go ahead to new material only after demonstrating mastery of that which preceded.
"(3) The adaptive use of teaching resources, including multimedia presentations and interactive demonstrations, as well as text sources of critical information. Adaptation based on analysis of student’s learning
"(4) The use of repeated unobtrusive testing, immediate scoring, adaptive tutoring, and the inclusion of scripting to enhance the personal-social aspect of the educational process." (these features paraphrase -- Keller, 1968)
Fred was a behaviorist. Many of us have a hard time with behaviorists because they tend to see humans as black boxes which can be controlled much like Pavlov’s dogs. Disgusting I know. We’d like to think of ourselves as so much more sophisticated than that. Thus we often ignore what the Behaviorists have to offer. Children do learn most effectively in a carefully contrived learning environment replete with precise conditioned reinforces and variable schedules of reinforcement. This is not a controversial statement. It’s been proven time and time again in hundreds of education and psychology studies that I’m not going to cite here. If you don’t believe, go to Google and have at it.

The Keller approach uses a clearly devised education environment that reinforces educational progress at the micro-level. As the student masters concepts principles and facts, he is rewarded immediately, his progress is recorded and he is encouraged onward to new material. If you think about it, this is the way we learn best, naturally.

In perhaps fifteen years, our children will need to learn complex things we can only imagine today. I suspect, the bulk of education will not be directly associated with making a living. One of the most important skills they will be taught, without doubt, is how stay on top of their changing world. Today we adapt naturally to change…not so in the near future. It will take effort. Life will be like software, constantly in revision, with the complexity factor constantly increasing daily. If all goes well and we avoid unnecessary war, our children will be learning the fine points of knowledge acquisition, artistic expression and leisure exploitation. Folks with good hands will have unprecedented, on-demand access training in such things as stonescaping, artistic carpentry, digital painting, culinary art and sculpting -- both physical, and 3D virtual style. I hope our love of books remains, but it will probably decline in time with books becoming bits of treasured antiquity.

Virtual Teachers are ideal for the Keller method of teaching. They can apply learning reinforcement with pinpoint precision, probe for the students learning style and achievent level in micro-steps. But they can also be set up for any approach that we find may be better. The sad truth is that V-teachers are potentially better and more personal than real teachers, giving each student patient instruction adapted to his or her best learning style.


Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Most of us are not aware that Virtual Humans are on the rise. They're showing up in web pages as intelligent hosts, have been set up in computer stores to answer questions about specific systems, and are everywhere providing information on scheduling, products etc. If you call Amtrak you get Sylvia, a voice-only virtual human who is intelligent enought to get you the information you need on train schedules etc. Far more intelligent Virtual Humans exist. They have engaging personalities, ability to hold general conversations and even the ability to carry out requests and commands. Studies have shown that they can already handle about 68% of the average company's customer support situations. They are already begining to replace human jobs.

I don't think this is a sad situation. As we move into a knowledge based society, the nature of human jobs is evolving rapidly. Communications technology is making ever more knowledge freely available to everyone and news travels fast. Those of us who wish to make use of all this will be on the plus side of the knowledge divide that is slowly widening. The people who do not take advantage will rapidly fall by the wayside of contemporary life. Today, many of them simply can not use the technology because of their backgrounds or personalities or level of intelligence.

Unfortunately these are the people who will see their jobs being rapidly sucked up by V-people. Where is the bright spot? It turns out virtual human itnerfacing can open up the knowledge frontier to the technologically disadvantaged. It is like a hand reaching across the divide; a bridge across ignorance and fear. Because the v-people understand technology on one hand and humans on the other they can become a transparent conduit allowing knowledge to flow smoothly to the far side of the divide. The result should be a narrowing of the divide and eventual elimination of it as ever more people avail them selves of information.

If you're interested in this topic, please come visit us at and you can find my book "Virtual Humans" at your local book store or on-line at, Barnes & Nolbel etc.

Peter Plantec