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Will This New Development in CGI Skin Overcome the Uncanny Valley?

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Computer graphics populate the levels of your favorite video games and help turn actors into superheroes. Bad CGI can derail a project and distract the audience, but when done skillfully, it can seamlessly fill gaps and enhance the overall viewing experience. A recent breakthrough in creating CGI skin by researchers at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and Imperial College London is changing the game, and will most certainly raise the bar for what can be considered “realistic.”

By developing a “10-micron resolution scanning technique” to capture very subtle skin microstructure deformations, the researchers were able to translate the tiniest movements in the skin and pores into usable data. The data was then used to manipulate the CGI character’s artificial flesh, resulting in rendered skin that stretches and compresses in ways that are more nuanced and realistic than ever before. The next step would be to study and use this technique to mimic various emotions, as well as differences in expression across age, race, and gender.

This is a major development, and one that computer graphics designers have been building towards for decades. Back in 1992, the makers of the film Death Becomes Her used CGI skin software (paired with silicone and animatronics) in various scenes and took home the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. Fast forward to 1997, and Pixar was pushing the envelope with CGI textures and skin with Geri’s Game, a short that also snagged an Academy Award. 

As the years progressed, the software seemed to peak at a point where CGI skin looked real, but not photo-real (this scene in The Matrix Reloaded is a good example). Attempts to make actors seem younger or to help them achieve inhuman feats with “digital cosmetic enhancements” was impressive, but still unnatural and a little weird. This CGI sits firmly in what is often called the “uncanny valley,” a step just shy of photorealism that evokes a negative emotional response. 

Is it possible that this study could be the key to escaping that uncanny valley? Check out the video below, which explains the study and its findings, and head to the project website to read the technical paper in full.

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People With Limited Mobility Can Now Use Amazon Alexa to Control Exoskeletons
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One of the challenges that comes with engineering exoskeletons that compensate for limited mobility is giving control to the people who wear them. Some systems use hand controls, while others can detect faint signals in the wearer’s muscles and respond accordingly. Now one exoskeleton startup is taking advantage of a technology that’s become mainstream in recent years: voice recognition.

As Engadget reports, Bionik Laboratories has integrated Amazon’s Alexa into its ARKE lower-body exoskeleton. The apparatus is designed for people with spinal chord damage or a history of stroke or traumatic brain injury that has hindered their movement below the waist. After strapping into the suit, wearers will now be able to use it just as they would a television set or stereo enabled with Alexa. Saying “Alexa, I’m ready to stand,” brings the joints to an upright position, and the command “Alexa, I’m ready to walk” prompts the legs to move forward. An Amazon Echo device must be within hearing range for the voice control to work, so in its current state the exoskeleton is only good for making short trips within the home.

Compatibility with Alexa isn’t the only modern feature Bionik worked into the design. The company also claims that ARKE is the first exoskeleton with integrated tablet control. That means if users wish to adjust their suit manually, they can do so by typing commands into a wireless touchpad. The tablet also records information that physical therapists can use to make more informed decisions when treating the patient.

Before the ARKE suit can be made available to consumers, it must first undergo clinical trials and receive approval from the FDA. If the tests go as planned Bionik hopes to have a commercial version of the product ready by 2019.

[h/t Engadget]

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Including Smiley Emojis in Your Work Emails Could Make You Look Incompetent
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If you’re looking to give your dry work emails some personality, sprinkling in emojis may not be the smartest strategy. As Mashable reports, smiley emojis in professional correspondences rarely convey the sentiments of warmth that were intended. But they do make the sender come across as incompetent, according to new research. For their paper titled "The Dark Side of a Smiley," researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel looked at 549 subjects from 29 countries. After reading emails related to professional matters, participants were asked to judge the "competence and warmth" of the anonymous sender. Emails that featured a smiley face were found to have a "negative effect on the perception of competence." That anti-emoji bias led readers to view the actual content of those emails as less focused and less detailed than the messages that didn’t include emojis. Previous research has shown that sending emojis to people you’re not 100 percent comfortable with is always a gamble. That’s because unlike words or facial expressions, which are usually clear in their meanings, the pictographs we shoot back and forth with our phones tend to be ambiguous. One study published last year shows that the same emoji can be interpreted as either positive or negative, depending on the smartphone platform on which it appears. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to communicate effectively without leaning on emojis to make you look human. Here are some etiquette tips for making your work emails sound clear and competent. [h/t Mashable]

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