Wed, Feb 20, 2019 - Page 2 News List

Engineer awarded Oscar for facial capture technology

Staff writer, with CNA

Software engineer Ma Wan-chun (馬萬鈞) and a team based at the University of Southern California (USC) were acknowledged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their face-digitizing technology, which has been advancing visual effects for a decade.

Ma, who now works as an engineer for Google, on Feb. 9 was awarded the Scientific and Technical Achievement Award along with his colleagues at the 91st Academy Awards for their computer graphics technology developed at the university’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

Their polarized spherical gradient illumination technology is a facial appearance capture method that uses a dome-shaped object called “Light Stage X,” Google said.

When an actor performs inside Light Stage X, they are illuminated by about 300 LEDs and their gestures are captured by cameras from different angles.

The footage is converted into a 3D model that is then used for visual effects, enabling the computer to understand the geometry, pore texture and light properties of the actor’s face, Google said.

Ma said that the technology, which can generate lifelike facial expressions, has transformed the movie industry.

For example, it created an older version of Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), brought the Na’vi tribe to the screen in Avatar (2009) and recreated Paul Walker’s performance in Furious 7 (2015) after the actor passed away mid-production.

Ma said that he has always been fascinated by visual effects in movies and video games, such as the diverse alien characters in the Star Wars movie series and the combination of real actors and animated backgrounds in the 1994 game Wing Commander 3.

As the field of computer graphics is still in its infancy in Taiwan, the Graduate Student Study Abroad Program of the National Science Council helped him pursue his studies, Ma said.

Under the program, he went to USC, where his faculty adviser, Paul Debevec, brought Ma into his research team in 2005 to help develop the facial capture system.

Ma said that instead of only researching for his doctoral dissertation, he always wanted to put his expertise into practice, and the work at USC helped him “turn imagination into reality.”

The team’s next step is to transfer the realistic visual effects presented in theaters to smartphones by applying the technology to the fields of augmented reality and virtual reality, Ma said.

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