Saturday, February 07, 2009

TED 2009 Thursday: Hallucincation and Illusion

<== Previous TED Post Next Ted Post ==> Talking Bacteria

Musicophilia HomepageI awoke early on Thursday to ensure I wouldn't miss the first speaker, Dr. Oliver Sacks. Sacks wrote the great study of neural disorders, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, as well as Awakenings (adapted to film with Robin Williams). Recently he wrote Musicophilia, documenting music-related brain disorders that yield a glimpse of how the brain understands and creates music. At TED he talked about the visual hallucinations that plagued many of his older patients. Sacks described the hallucinations in detail, and explained his diagnosis of Charles Bonnie Syndrome, named for the scientist who first observed the incidence of hallucinations in his own grandfather as well as about 10% of people with any kind of sensory impairment (even partial). Part of Sacks' charm is that he respects his patients enough to understand the details of their hallucinations (they tend to be repetitive and often feature staircases and deformed faces), assuring them that despite a tangible neural condition, theyr'e not demented. Sacks lamented that only 10% of people who suffer this syndrome tell anyone for fear of derision.

Sacks ended by disclosing that he himself is partially blind in one eye, and that he himself experiences a mild form of these hallucinations (geometric shapes). Like Jill Bolte Taylor's "stroke of luck", Sacks now has a subject he can study at all times.

Score: 9 (out of 10) Balloons

The other highlight from Thursday was Ed Ulbrich from Digital Domain who has won more than one Oscar for his digital effects. Ulbrich walked us through the story behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button movie, and how his team achieved what everyone had thought was impossible: for the first hour of that film, Benjamin Button is represented by a digitized head imposed upon a different (much shorter) human actor. The head must appear genuinely old, and still capture all the facial gestures, nuances, and actins (cry, sweat, vomit...) performed by the actor Brad Pitt.

When Ulbrich took on the job he had no idea how they would tackle this challenge, but he and his team applied a "stew of solutions" that utterly pulled off the illusion on time and on budget:

1) Animators have conventionally applied radio receptors to the face to track the movement of facial muscles. This generates about a hundred polygons that can be rendered to simulate human expressions. But to render the resolution of a human face without any hint that it is digitized, 100 polygons is not detailed enough. So Ulbrich pioneered the use of a radio-reflective particulate (?), mixing it into Brad Pitt's makeup so that they could track the movement of the entire facial surface, generating 100,000 polygons.

2) With the particulate in place, they recorded the execution of every possible facial gesture one can perform. every twitch of the eyebrow, flare of the nostril, quiver of the lip. On demand, their digital face could now re-produce those gestures.

3) They sculpted and scanned three replicas of Brad Pitt with all the aging that he will show at 60, 70 and 80 years of age. They mapped the surfaces of these scans to the gestures in their database, so now they could render every facial gesture that Brad PItt will present in his senior years.

4) The short actor who played the elderly (er, I mean infantile) Benjamin wore a blue head mask -- sort of a human green screen upon which Digital Brad's face could be inserted.

5) Brad then acted his part, while a computer recorded and identified each and every gesture to render it digitally upon the other actor's head. We watched Brad on one screen acting his part while on the other half of the screen older Digital Brad was duplicating his facial gestures. Obviously Brad Pitt is a very talented actor, whose every expression had to genuinely carry through to his character. They did, and the result was compelling.

I must admit I did see one tiny flaw in the process. Benjamin was saying that due to his condition he might die or might not die while he was still young. In a wonderfully childlike manner, Brad Pitt quickly glanced to the upper left corner of his eye and then forward again -- but it happened so fast that Digital Brad missed it.

This was a great talk that incorporated all three original meanings of TED: Technology, Education and Design.

Score: 10 Balloons
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Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the bestseller Eat. Pray. Love. Her talk was well received, so you may wish to watch it, especially if you liked the book. Indeed, she did make me laugh out loud a few times. But the message
-- how to tap into your muse and unleash your creativity -- was sufficiently foofy that it wasn't one of my favorites.

Score: 6 Balloons

Louise Fresco, an international expert on hunger, walked us through the history and economics of bread-making across centuries and cultures.

Score: 4 Balloons

Member pictureI normally don't expect to like the design-oriented talks, but Jacek Utko was worth watching. Here's a young guy who got the job as "art director" at a tiny struggling newspaper in Poland, and attacked the job with such passion that he transformed the newspaper into an award-winning, fast-growing regional magazine. He started with a re-design of the layout to provoke the interest of readers, much the way web designers do, and compelled the editors to fit their stories into his format. It's a nice story of an underdog's success.

Score: 8 Balloons

Unfortunately I couldn't make it to the Thursday afternoon sessions.

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