Nvidia released the worlds most powerful graphics card (in a single GPU) in February but last week showed off their new engine they created to demonstrate the full power of the Titan called Face Works. Face Works starts by compressing 32GB (1 1/2 Blu-Rays) of video from 156 cameras that capture 30 different human facial expressions. All of that data is then compressed to around 400MB (half a CD-R) allowing the software to be able to call on that data seamlessly in real-time and determine the proper facial expressions using the power of the graphics card. Nvidia wasn't clear if these data meshes could work on any facial model or if each person would have to be scanned to get the type of accuracy shown in the demo. The power of the Titan is extremely impressive, and gives a glimpse of what type of applications this technology could be used for beyond video games.
The presenter mentioned examples like scanning political or historical figures to have them recite their own quotes or famous speeches. He imagined having Abraham Lincoln's avatar recite the Gettysburg Address in his actual voice and with his particular mannerisms. The long and short-term implications of having life like avatars that could speak for us long after our physical bodies are gone could have rippling effects throughout society that aren't initially obvious.
The idea of a digital or virtual-self is becoming more complex as our lives become ever-more entwined with the digital world. Norms and code of conduct are still being developed, learned and tweaked as more people begin to create their digital self on the internet. One of the largest problems when it comes to online interaction is the lack of empathy and common courtesy shown to each other. It's much easier to dismiss or ridicule a seemingly lifeless avatar image than a real person with feelings. Having increasingly life like avatars could be a way to bridge that gap and put a more 'human' face on ourselves.
We won't have to wait too long for this kind of graphical processing power. Video cards like the Titan will go from a high-end hobbyist price range ($1000), to a mainstream price level that's available in laptops and eventually smartphones faster than we think. Moore's Law states that the amount of transistors will double roughly every 18 months. Even though graphic cards don't follow the exact same growth trend as CPU's due to architecture, high-end graphic cards tend to drop in price to mid to low-level range within in 2-3 years. The exponentially growth of computer power means that we're progressing faster every generation than the previous. The approximate cost per/GFlop dropped from $48 in 2007 to $0.75 in 2012. As processing power increases, cost of producing the power decreases. It's conceivable that we could start seeing this type of power in the average new computer sold in less than 5 years and mobile in less than 10 years.
Right now the scanning process requires a room full of cameras and would only be practical for special projects. (ie. Scanning the President for historical reasons) But as scanning technology also improves it's easy to imagine a place where you could walk in and get your avatar created. How would everyone having an avatar that looked, moved and sounded like them (or not) effect our culture and the way we communicate? Today's avatars are static images or pictures that gives viewers only a hint of who you are. It seems archaic when you compare it to what Face Works is capable of with the Titan. But who says you have to be yourself? Part of the attraction of the internet is the anonymity and the ability to be who you want to be. We should expect at least similar behavior we currently see on the internet. Men pretending to be women, women pretending to be men, pirates, zombies, and everything in between. Once your avatar is created, when you die who gets control of it and decides what it can be used for? Will you likeness ever be used to sale or endorse something you never would have when you were alive? These are just a few of the ethical, social and financial questions that will begin appearing as our virtual self continues to mature and replicate reality. Think about this, in 5 years it may not be unusual to have a virtually hang out (on an island) with friends or in a social network while everyone is using their life-like avatar and virtual reality headset, the Oculus Rift.
For the full Nvidia Press Conference click here