Disney and Danish students in joint effort
Collaboration with Disney’s U.S. research laboratories has provided two students from Aalborg University with access to cool new technology and advice from leading computer graphics experts. The joint project supplements visual impressions with factual information in 3D glasses, and similar applications may be headed for wider dissemination through mobile technology.
The two newly graduated engineers, Thomas Balling Sørensen and Henrik Møss Christoffersen, have spent much of their final year of study at Disney Research in Pittsburgh, USA. The American entertainment giant’s research lab is adjacent to the prestigious university Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science and the combination provided optimal conditions for the Danish students' master’s thesis and future careers.
- Aalborg University encourages students to take a semester abroad, so along with our supervisor we looked for exciting places in our field, which is computer vision, graphics and interactive systems. Disney Research was an incredibly interesting opportunity, and through their collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, we could maintain a connection to a university in the USA. So we worked in a research lab with a lot of talented people working in all areas of our field. It has made for some good social and professional contacts that we’ll hold on to in the future, says Henrik Møss Christoffersen.
The real challenge in this project was to recognize animals and their movements using advanced eyewear with built-in cameras and screens - a "headmounted display".
- We have tried to make a system that can be used when walking around a zoo or driving around in a safari park. The glasses can detect the animals you see, and that makes it possible to display additional information about the species and what the animals are doing, explains Thomas Balling Sørensen.
The result works, but there’s a ways to go to something that’s fully workable.
- We have mainly experimented with elephants because our partners at the Pittsburgh Zoo had some data on them that we could use. We had great success in recognizing the elephants, but now it works only on relatively simple movements. In principle it will work with many different things, if we get access to enough good data, says Henrik Møss Christoffersen.
More than Mickey Mouse
The pair’s Danish supervisor, Thomas B. Moeslund, Associate Professor from the Department of Architecture and Media Technology, made use of his network to arrange the agreement with Disney Research, and he’s impressed with the outcome.
- It shows how far you can get with a thesis project, if you have a clear idea of what to do and if you have good contacts and people who can support it. There’s potential in what they've done, and so we are also talking with Disney about how we can move forward, says Thomas Moeslund.
At Disney Research, Research Scientist Leonid Sigal is accustomed to some initial surprise that his employer is also involved with research. But this project’s focus on computer recognition of movements is a good example of how scientific knowledge underpins more familiar activities.
- Disney is much more than Mickey Mouse and all the other things that people typically think of. Disney owns TV channels like ABC and ESPN, and it has a games division that develops computer games. So there are many possible uses for the technology we deal with in our research. I work, for example, with how people – or as in this project animals – move, and how to make virtual characters look lifelike, says Leonid Sigal.
The Danish students’ thesis project has benefited from access to the latest in virtual reality technology. Development in the area gets Leonid Sigal to believe in an exciting future for applications that, like the students' zoo system, augment sensory perceptions of reality with an extra layer of computer-generated information.
- I think a revitalization of the area is coming. There has previously been some work, but the technology was not quite ready back then, although the ideas were there. Now the technology to recognize things has become much better, and in the next 10 years we will see many more applications that take advantage of this, predicts Leonid Sigal.
That expectation is shared by Thomas Moeslund, AAU Associate Professor, who is pinning his hopes on, among other things, the proliferation of smart mobile devices:
- It's actually been sneaking in, because there are examples of it being used in some of the new smartphones. On the other hand, if you need to wear special glasses, they have to be smaller, lighter and cheaper than they are now, and if that happens we'll probably see it become more widespread. The technology is almost in place.
For Thomas Balling Sørensen and Henrik Møss Christoffersen the development will be very welcome because it will mean that there will be a need for their core competencies:
- We'd really like to continue working with this technology. There aren’t many job opportunities in the field in Denmark yet, but there are various places in Europe, and it might be interesting to perhaps return to the USA, says Henrik Møss Christoffersen.
Further information and contact:
- More info about the specialization in Vision, Graphics and Interactive Systems at Aalborg University.
- Henrik Møss Christoffersen, tel. +45 4111 7736.
- Thomas Balling Sørensen, tel. +45 3114 5811.
- Thomas B. Moeslund, Associate Professor, Dept. of Architecture and Media Technology, tel. +45 9940 8787.
- Carsten Nielsen, Science Journalist, Aalborg Universitet, mobile +45 2340 6554.