Pick your disguise: I want to be Dr. Jekyll as my mini-me. WWJ was pleasantly surprised last week to find that one of Japan’s usually less-covered semiconductor companies, Oki Electric Industrial, has just come up with 3D digital avatar-producing software called FaceCommunicator-BBE that should allow mobile phone users to appear as a character that mimics (in real time) the user’s facial expressions (anger, doubt, happiness, etc.) during calls. Given Japan’s love of anime (think Pokemon), the software could be a real boon for those obsessed with being really cute – or those, for whatever reason, who don’t want to show their faces during videophone conversations.
Last week we trooped down to Oki Electric’s Tokyo showroom to take a look at the company’s latest mobile communication technologies and to test FaceCommunicator, which at this stage only works on a PC equipped with a digicam. We plunked ourselves down in front of the screen and – tattered, graying and loosing hair by the handful – this writer was transformed into a dashing young fellow apparently in conversation with a doe-eyed, 20-year-old-something who was actually (and unfortunately) a middle-aged Oki technician. When I smiled, my alter-image smiled, when I frowned, he (it?) frowned, and when I made a half-hearted attempt at a head-butt, so did mini-me. (It wasn’t me, M’lord, it was Mister Hyde!) Great!
FaceCommunicator works (and it does work) by monitoring in real time 14 points on the user’s face (two at each end of the eyebrows, one each for the eyes, three for the top lip, three for the bottom, and two at the corners to pick up snarls as well as smiles) that drive the mini-you on screen. Oki calls it FASE, or Facial Animation and Sensing; the system uses a “face” sensor incorporating visual, audio, “event” and “text” sensors that generate data to animate the character selected from the library.
I was able to bob and up and down and prattle happily away, while my suave other self did a good job of imitating me in a more laid-back way with almost imperceptible delay. (Ed. Note: I wonder how much this system depends on keitai processor speed – now at about 133 MHz?)
“Actually, we were a bit worried, we wondered whether it would work with a Westerner,” confided Toshihiko Miyazaki, project manager at Oki’s Visual Solution Development Department and the brains behind what could be a blinding application for mobile phones sometime next year.
The first version of the system is pretty basic, but the potential is obvious. Right now, there is a small a selection of eight characters, including all the Japanese cliches you can think of: Mr. Young and Dashing, Miss Office Cutsie, yet another sickeningly cute pussycat, Kind Mr. Tanaka the Division Chief, Mrs. Suzuki the happy housewife, etc. – as well as about 10 “moods,” that can be picked up. We wonder what Oki will do for hangovers?
While at the moment the system is designed for IP TV, it doesn’t need broadband to speak of and Oki will try to convince carriers to allow FaceCommunicator on mobbies by next summer said Miyazaki.
Technically, the system seems a no-brainer for the phones that will be out 2H 2004, when Oki hopes to get a ‘Yes’ from Big D, Big K, and/or Big V. The software only requires 14 kbps to generate a 30-fps image; codec is MPEG-4; we couldn’t get an answer on the player software but the current FOMA OMAP (ARM-9 plus DSP) can easily face up to the software FaceCommunicator project leader Seiji Inoue assured us.
Key issue for Oki: How to get the carriers and device makers on board on top of the image rights and branding concerns. Handset makers can easily blend in DSP driver software and current-gen keitai cameras are fine with the system but the next hurdle is a huge one. Version 2 in February will allow more “characters” – but whose? For every “Matrix Revolutions” fan who might want to look (a bit? very?) like Keanu Reeves, there are a million Japanese kogaru (teen girrlz) who would love to become Ayumi Hamazaki or, going up-market somewhat, the fabulous Fujiwara Norika.
“We can’t name the companies we are talking to,’ says Miyazaki, and we’re not surprised. This could be killer.
– Paul Kallender