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THE CUTTING EDGE / CYBERNEWS | HEARD ON THE BEAT

June 23, 1997|KAREN KAPLAN

Virtual Humans: The idea of a virtual human may sound hopelessly futuristic, but a handful of companies from the U.S. and Europe showed off some impressive software--some of which are actually on the market--last week at the Virtual Humans 2 conference in Universal City.

The field--which combines virtual reality, motion capture, computer graphics and kinetics--is still tiny, but it has attracted the attention of some major companies and government agencies. Lockheed Martin Corp., Caterpillar Inc. and the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force are all customers of firms in the fledgling field.

One of the most popular applications for virtual human technology so far is to analyze ergonomic and safety conditions in the workplace. Avatars--digital models whose motion is strikingly lifelike--are programmed to perform routine tasks, such as typing at a computer or lifting a box from a table. Then computers measure the ergonomic impact of such chores by examining the avatars' posture to see if joint positions are within standard "comfort zones."

Deneb/ERGO, a software package made by Deneb Robotics in Auburn Hills, Mich., allows users to design tasks for virtual humans with a series of simple mouse clicks. When a user clicks on an avatar's right hand and drags it to a table, the software will show how the rest of the body will move as a result.

The avatars in that program were created using motion capture, in which a computer records the movement of six sensors on a real person and uses that data to animate the digital model. Prices for the Deneb/ERGO software range from $50,000 to $80,000, said Jeff Miller, the company's ergonomics product manager.

Transom Technologies' virtual human, Transom Jack, can be put into digital workplaces and locate likely sources of on-the-job injuries, among other things. The Ann Arbor, Mich., company licensed the popular Jack avatar from the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Human Modeling and Simulation and easily raised $3 million in venture capital, said President and CEO James Price. Transom Jack sells for about $20,000.

Other applications are less well-developed but wowed conference attendees nonetheless. British Telecommunications showed off its Talking Heads virtual teleconferencing program, which puts virtual humans that look like teleconference participants around a virtual table.

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