"We're planning to process the data as a service and make the finished product available to the government," he said. "We're trying to free the government from having this big infrastructure that's required for geospatial data."

Reel World
For more than a century, movies have served as a virtual world. With cinema, however, your stay in the virtual world is unchanging and brief. And once it has been experienced, that world gradually loses whatever power it possessed that compelled you to visit it. But movies today employ a technology that may further blur the line between the real and virtual worlds.

Motion capture technology is rapidly becoming a staple in film production. Though its roots can be traced back to military experiments, motion capture truly came into its own thanks to a creepy little fellow named Gollum. Gollum is Frodo Baggins' infamous antagonist in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In director Peter Jackson's film version of the famous book, Gollum was created using motion capture technology. The actor and voice behind Gollum, Andy Serkis, was fitted with numerous sensors that recorded his physical movements. These movements were then processed using high-end software to generate a skeletal figure that perfectly replicated Serkis' actions. Next, the computer-generated skeleton was transformed by the digital visual effects team at Wellington, New Zealand-based Weta Digital to create the character of Gollum. Since Weta's breakthrough in producing an extremely lifelike character, motion capture has grown ever more commonplace in moviemaking.

Now, motion capture experts are speculating about the possibilities beyond film. For example, professional athletes' movements are being captured routinely. This is usually done for one of two reasons -- either to study how the body moves in order to treat or prevent injury or, on the lighter side, to make sports video games more realistic by assigning a player's actual movements to his or her digital counterpart.

Ron Brinkmann is a digital visual effects expert who founded a company called Nothing Real. Prior to being acquired by Apple in 2002, Nothing Real created Shake, one of the leading visual effects and digital compositing software applications. Now with Apple, Brinkmann explained how motion capture technology can be useful for tasks like traffic and crowd control. For example, if a transportation department needs to visualize a busy downtown intersection, motion capture can help create a virtual world where pedestrians and automobiles move just as they would in reality.

"It allows you to understand in much more detail how people interact," he said. "It becomes a more accurate simulation because it's no longer just this sphere or this simplified block that represent a human interacting, it's somebody who has arms and legs and you can put in rules -- if there are too many legs in the same place people fall down, people can push off of each other."

But motion capture is just that -- motion. In order to make motion realistic there has to be motivation driving the motion. That's where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. If you've ever played the popular Electronic Arts Madden Football video games, you know that the computer-controlled players seem to act with intent. In fact, Electronic Arts has one of the world's largest studios where entire teams from every professional sport come to have their motions captured. Then Electronic Arts programmers add AI to make the sports simulation more authentic -- linemen attack your quarterback, receivers know their routes, and referees run the field with seeming intelligence.

Likewise, if a city is trying to analyze why so many accidents occur at a given intersection, modeling humans would be useless if they didn't act like humans.

"The simulation can get more accurate because you can really deal with people and the way people move instead of how some idealized point moves," Brinkmann said. "That was

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.