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The rush to digitization raises ethical issues

Yusuf Progler

In certain quarters of western civilization, especially among those who design, sell and use digital computers, there is a rush toward digitization. The new technology makes possible various forms of colonization and enclosure that have been unthinkable until now. As usual, public discussions about the rush to digitization extol its virtues (ie its convenience, usefulness and sometimes its profitability) without considering its implications in any meaningful depth. One area that is moving headlong into digitization involves aspects of human movement, especially with respect to micro-timed phenomena. Digitization of human processes raises questions of who owns, controls, and benefits from aspects of human behavior.

A recent technological innovation, known as "motion capture," has implications for digital enclosure of human processes. Motion capture utilizes digitized films of live action, whether of people or animals, by placing "point trackers" on the film image to track live-action movements. Tracking movement allows a model to execute the motion performed by the living being, based on where trackers are placed. Experimentation involves placement of point-trackers. This is used primarily in virtual reality systems and other simulations. There are problems with occlusion (over-lapping) in virtual reality systems, much of which work is done in a studio setting, but proposed solutions involve global positioning satellite systems that can motion capture free running animals and athletes outdoors instead of in the studio.

Motion capture is not yet fully responsive to user control. Norman Badler, originator of the virtual test-dummy ‘Transom Jack’ and other real-time human simulations, uses anthropometry based on US army and NASA measurements of ranges of human types, scaled from Japanese women to American men. Anthropometry is more flexible than motion capture, because it is easier to alter and parameterize. Motion capture works better with forced applications, when the user defines the movements specifically. The army and NASA need more flexibility for their testing regimes. Badler believes that simulated humans can be created through motion capture and time synthesis, exhibiting autonomy and intelligence in decision making in novel and changing environments. His research is intended to create interactive virtual people with individual personalities. Applications of virtual humans include cartoons, games, special effects, medicine, ergonomics, education, tutoring, and military simulations, within dimensions of appearance, function, time, autonomy, and individuality ranked according to the needs of different applications. Its major uses are now in safety and crash simulations, industrial training programs, and car design.

The motion capture literature discusses future prospects for autonomous animation and human figure simulation, all directed to utility and applied to industrial needs. Scientists and technicians in these fields are not asking ethical, moral or legal questions. Instead, motion capture research is interested in virtual humans, gestural effort control, and locomotion. The recent maturation of computer technology to portray and control virtual humans, in simulations which are increasingly interactive with their human cohorts, has people like Badler envisioning a cultural movement "toward smarter avatars."

While advanced research is carried out in private laboratories funded by the university-corporate-government complex, the entertainment industry is the main way that most people are becoming aware of the possibilities of motion capture and anthropometry research, even though examples to date have been rather in some cases. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are making strides toward using naturally occurring movements for bringing more "life" to their animated characters. For example, since the mega-hit movie Jurassic Park used computer-animation techniques stemming from films of elephants and other animals to bring dinosaurs to the big screen, the technique has become increasingly common. The film’s astonishing realism is due in part to plotting and patterning animations after live human and animal movements. Such breakthroughs in motion capture would never have been possible without vast infusions of industry and state capital, in the hope of even vaster profits and control.

The advertising industry is doing similar work. Using computers and film, animators are able to capture the intricacies of human movement in their imaginary creations. Some of this is being funded by oil and auto conglomerates for joint advertising campaigns. It works like this: professional human dancers are carefully filmed and their movements digitally mapped. The digital maps are used as frameworks over which animated characters can be digitally drawn (in this case cars and gasoline pumps dancing in couples, rather corny and unimaginative, to say the least). The human images are digitally removed, and animations are built on the maps of human movements (like killing the dancers but keeping their shadows). This results in animations that seem more lifelike than ever before. The human dancers are paid on union scales for the initial sessions in which their motions are captured.

Like someone whose photograph has been taken, people whose motions have been captured have no control over how their movements are used, since the ‘real’ humans are conveniently removed from the picture. Once motion phenomena are separated from their organic sources, and then digitally captured and mapped, patenting those motions as a new creation is the obvious next step.

This ought to raise serious legal and ethical questions about who owns and controls mapped motions once they are digitized. But legal and ethical implications of digitization are dwarfed by the sheer magnitude and speed of the technological rush. Given the western record of colonizing and enslaving human bodies, one wonders what will become of virtual humans as the rush toward digitization colonizes and encloses human motions.

Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 17

Rajab 22, 14201999-11-01

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