With @ctors, now you can be a star ... virtually

Step 1: Create a 3-D avatar with Big Stage. Step 2: Give it a mohawk and hop into action.

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    Virtual Self: A 3-D ‘@ctor’ is shown here on Big Stage Entertainment’s website. Such images are created after people upload three digital photos of themselves to bigstage.com. An @ctor can be accessorized and inserted into social-networking sites, TV and movie scenes, video games, and other forms of media content.
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There’s a new type of face-lift procedure in Hollywood – only this one is digital. Big Stage Entertainment, a Los Angeles start-up, will lift your face from digital photos and create a three-dimensional, realistic avatar in your own image. It’s a simple process: Take three photographs of your face from slightly different angles, upload them to bigstage.com, and wait a minute or two for the results.

I recently visited the company’s offices to try it out, half expecting the result to resemble Max Headroom. But the avatar, while not perfect, was a remarkable likeness. So much so, I wish they could have shaved a couple of pounds off my digital counterpart.

The free online avatars, which the company calls @ctors, can be incorporated into everything from a video game to three-dimensional e-learning environments. In the short term, these 3-D faces could bring a whole new dimension to your Facebook profile. In the long term, Big Stage could facilitate personalized interactive entertainment that allows your digital self to star in, say, an old movie scene alongside Marlon Brando.

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“If you could build a little three-minute clip from ‘The Godfather,’ or whatever your favorite movie is, and put it out as a YouTube film or some other easily sharable video that you could e-mail, put on a blog, or put on a Facebook page, I think that has huge potential,” says Daniel Terdiman, a senior writer for CNET news, a technology website.

Big Stage’s proprietary technology roughly works like this: It follows thousands of points across each face in a photographic image. This so-called stereo-reconstruction technology then finds the common points across in each of the three digital photos and extrapolates the depth of those points to create a three-dimensional avatar.

“It’s fully rigged, which means it has bones inside of the face so it can smile and talk and communicate,” explains Jonathan Strietzel, founder of the company.

Next year, Big Stage will allow @ctors to mimic your voice by having customers read a page of dialogue.

“It has all the word combinations, and it gets your rhythm, and your cadence, and your pitch, and the way your voice carries, and what you do at the end of a sentence, what you do at the end of a question,” says Big Stage cofounder Jon Snoddy. “That all gets programmed in. You can then have your voice automatically generated.”

The only downfall of the current technology is that it isn’t able to replicate the user’s hair, so the newborn avatars arrive bald. You have to try on a wide variety of virtual wigs to compensate. (Other accessories include glasses and hats.) Just for kicks, I opted for a Mohawk.

Before long, I found my digital self starring in a scene from “The A-Team.” Even more surreal: My @ctor was cast as the villain that had been trussed up on a set of train tracks by Hannibal, Faceman, Murdock, and B.A. Baracus. (Perhaps Mr. T didn’t care for my Mohawk?)

“We’re very open to new ways to use old content,” says Mike Dubelko, president of Stephen J. Cannell Productions, which created “The A-Team” and is one of Big Stage’s content providers. “It’s one of those things that you have to give away for free and then, to the extent that people really love it and it gets better, then monetize it.”

Big Stage Entertainment says it’s talking to a number of video-game companies and film studios about incorporating @ctors into their content. But don’t expect to be able to replace, say, a generic “Guitar Hero” avatar with your own grimacing face just yet.

“[Studios] would probably be a little suspicious of losing control of their intellectual property,” says Mr. Terdiman. “You never know what consumers are going to do when you let them play with your content.”

Terdiman says that Big Stage has been promising to announce deals with content providers since February but has yet to substantially deliver.

The company promises that it’s on the verge of announcing big partnerships. Last month, for example, it struck a deal with VIDiGREET, a video-greetings company.
Now that Big Stage’s site is out of beta testing, the company is bullish that its product will spread virally.

“A year from now,” says Mr. Snoddy, “I think, everyone’s going to have a digital version of themselves.”

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