Dancer to perform with distant computer-generated character

Lance Chong, a graphic artist at the UI’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, uses motion-capture technology to track the movements of Cho-Ying Tsai. The movements – from up to 500 locations on the body – are mapped onto an avatar, which is then animated by the movement of the performer’s markers. The avatar will share the stage with a live dancer at USC Oct. 29. <br> <br>Photo by Bill Wiegand

Pairing a real dancer with an animated dance partner is nothing new – it’s a technique used in any number of movies or television shows. But collaborating artists and engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are putting a new spin on the idea.

Working with engineers in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois, visiting Beckman scholar Yu Hasegawa-Johnson is the visionary behind a real-time, high-tech pas de deux by dancers located thousands of miles apart. The performance, scheduled to take place Oct. 29 at the University of Southern California’s Bing Theater in conjunction with the fall meeting of the Internet2 advanced-networking consortium, will feature a live dancer at USC, who will share the dance floor with “a fully-articulated avatar.” The avatar, a computer-generated character that will assume various appearances during the dance – a baby butterfly, fairy and robot among them – will represent the movements of a dancer performing live in Beckman’s Integrated Systems Laboratory. The dancer’s movements will be transmitted in real time over the Internet. The animated images, created by Beckman’s Lance Chong, will be projected onto a semi-transparent screen placed between the dancer and the audience in the theater at USC. The dancers will see each other’s images and be able to dance in synch.

“As far as we know, this is the first time something like this has been attempted,” said Hasegawa-Johnson, the production’s co-producer and art director, and a filmmaker with a passion for tapping into online technologies to create art forms. For the upcoming production, Hasegawa-Johnson recruited dancers Chih-Chuh Huang and Cho-Ying Tsai and enlisted the technical support of Hank Kaczmarski, director of Beckman Institute’s Integrated Systems Laboratory. Kaczmarski is co-producer and technical director for the production, which uses motion-capture technology.

“The motion-capture technology that will be used,” he said, “is called ‘multiple-camera optical tracking.’ An array of 10 cameras surrounds the performer, who wears retro-reflective markers to tell the cameras the exact position of up to 500 locations on the performer’s body. Those body locations are mapped onto an avatar, which is then animated by the movement of the performer’s markers.”

Kaczmarski said the dance project demonstrates how technology originally intended for scientific purposes can be adapted and used to explore human creativity. “We are taking a valuable tool used in our lab by kinesiologists to study human motion and adapting that tool to serve the arts,” he said. “The ISL provides the environment for non-computer-savvy researchers to conduct research using ultra-state-of-the-art computer-based tools. My role in this project is to ‘tame’ the technology so that it is a servant to the performers, not the other way around.”

The Beckman crew’s production is one of several collaborative works on the Oct. 29 program created by individuals at Internet2 member institutions nationwide to showcase various ways in which networking technologies can be harnessed and used for artistic exploration.

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