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Weta Digital man pioneers new animation lab

Academy Award winner Mark Sagar is out to take computer animation to a new level by starting a new laboratory at the University of Auckland.

The Laboratory for Animate Technologies, based at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), will work on both blue skies research and commercial applications and create interactive autonomously animated systems that “will help define the next generation of human-computer interaction and facial animation“.

“Imagine a machine that can not only express what is on its mind, but also allows you to glimpse the mental imagery that it is constantly changing in its mind,” says Sagar.

Sagar previously worked for Weta Digital where he created technology for achieving the realistic appearance and performance capture animation of digital characters such as Avatar’s Na’vi people. His pioneering work in computer-generated faces was recognised with two consecutive Oscars at the 2010 and 2011 Sci-tech awards, a branch of the Academy Awards that recognises movie science and technological achievements.

Industries to benefit from research and technology created in Sagar’s lab include those where establishing emotional rapport is important such as education, advertising, and the entertainment industry.

“One question we are pursuing is: can technology be made more appealing if it is more natural?”

Sagar says the technology will simulate the lifelike qualities and the observable natural reflexes and behaviour of someone engaging with another person, developing advanced computer vision techniques to track facial expression and behaviour. These techniques will be used with other modes of sensory input to allow the smart machine to sense its world.

Visitors will engage with expressive interfaces including realistic faces and also be able to see the inner workings or underlying “brain activity” generating the machines’ responses.

”Our computational models of emotion, perception, learning and memory will generate highly expressive realistic – or fantastic – imagery which engages the user on a visceral, emotional level,“ he says.

“We are building a collaborative modular model of the face and brain, a brain and face Lego with swappable and re-shapable parts. Both scientists and artists who want an interactive context to test and visualise their work can design, combine, integrate, inspect, react, be reacted to, and redesign."

Mark Sagar worked on the technology used to create the Na'vi people in Avatar