LODZ — If 50 years ago somebody had told our Polish grandparents that they would be able to have a video call with someone from anywhere in the world, they probably would have sent that person to the nearest chapel to beg forgiveness for heresy.
Today, we are confronted with futuristic visions like scanning people and bringing to life their so-created avatars. Is this our destiny?
That’s the question asked in the film The Congress directed by Ari Folman, an Israeli of Polish origins. The movie, released in Poland Sept. 13, premiered during the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in May, and is loosely based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, a Polish science-fiction writer mostly known for his 1961 book Solaris.
The script tells the story of an actress, Robin (played by Robin Wright), who is tempted by her film production company with the promise of eternal youth — and a colossal amount of money, which she could spend on treatment for her seriously sick son.
If she agrees to the deal, Robin’s image would be immortalized by a special 3D scanner that would register every millimeter of her body and face, even her various facial expressions. Her digital avatar, animated freely by computers, could eternally star in the movies, giving Robin a status as a forever young cinema icon. In return, the actress would have to sell all movie rights to her digital image and disappear from public life.
Despite many doubts, Robin finally signs the deal. After she has lost control over her digital image, her name becomes synonymous with cheap fantasy movies in which her avatar stars regularly. Spectators, unable to detect any difference between the digital creation and the real actress, are persuaded to watch her.
Pure fantasy or already reality?
“It’s real,” argues Dr. Radoslaw Zajdel, lab chief of the three-dimensional anthropometric at the Medical University in Lodz, located in central Poland. He takes us to a room with something that looks like an aluminum cage. “Please, come inside,” Zajdel says. Thirty cameras and special lamps are distributed all across the facility.
“I do basically the same thing as the guys from the movie. I scan people,” he says. Pointing to a computer monitor, he says, “Here I have an avatar of a student. I can make him move his mouth or blink. I can turn him around as I feel like.”
Though he would have no problem sewing up his creations, Zajdel is no Frankenstein. “You have no idea how it feels to hold a beating heart in your hand,” he says. After graduating in medicine and gaining some surgical experience, he ultimately decided to dedicate himself to computer sciences.
“Those were the days,” he recalls. “I remember buying a hard drive and having to sign a declaration that I would not use it for military purposes.”
The scanner in the Lodz laboratory is mainly used to plan surgeries. “We can, for example, make a simulation of a patient’s face after a maxillo-facial surgeon removes a piece of the bone,” Zajdel explains.
So far, 300 people have been scanned in the laboratory. “We need to enlarge the collection. Then we can do science,” Zajdel says. “For instance, we could determine the relationship between the volume of the abdominal cavity and the risk of a stroke.”
“So,” he says, suddenly addressing our team, “Which one of you wants to be scanned?” “Ladies first.” I was therefore designated.
As I stand in the center of the cage with my arms up, just like in the movie, camera-like flashes shimmer all around me. I’m not supposed to move, but I do roll my eyes to get a quick glimpse at the monitor above me. I see my avatar being sketched dot by dot. Green points progressively shape my silhouette.
The data that serve to create avatars are generated by 30 cameras inside the cage, 20 of them geometric, 10 textural. While the cameras are taking photos, special lamps are displaying a grid on the body of the patient. The geometrical cameras register the deflections of the grid on the body. “Thanks to the ratios between various points in the three-dimensional space, we can measure the length of the different segments of the body, calculate their surface area and their volume,” says Adam Michalski, an engineer who is working toward his PhD in Zajdel’s laboratory.
The textural cameras take photos of particular parts of the body, and the data they collect are processed by the computer. Subsequently, a real image of the human tissue is laid on the avatar’s dotted skeleton.
“Done!” Zajdel screams. “Now we don’t need you anymore.” Zajdel starts to play with my avatar. He turns it around and demonstrates how it looks from every angle. “Don’t worry — we didn’t film from the bottom,” he says, laughing.
In his movie, Folman seems to be asking about the future of humans in a world where an artificial clone may be more effective and cheaper than a living person who has complicated needs. After all, an actor must be paid. An avatar, not so much.
“You saw a place that in a few years will become something obvious,” Zajdel concludes. “But will it replace our reality? I hope not.”