Animate Technologies: Developing technology to make animation more human

In a laboratory at Auckland University, Dr Mark Sagar and his team are digitally building the face of a baby.

Dr Mark Sagar. Photo © The University of Auckland The interactive face has a life-like brain and sensory system, and it will emotionally react to you when you walk into the room.

Dr Sagar has established the Laboratory for Animate Technologies at the university’s Auckland Bioengineering Institute, and is taking animation to a new level. He is also working with the university’s Centre for Brain Research, Department of Psychology and School of Architecture.

Animations driven by intelligence

After spending seven years at Weta Digital, Dr Sagar wanted to create live interactive models rather than passive characters anchored by the actors’ performances.

“I’ve always been interested in making animations driven by computational intelligence. We are exploring the next generation of computer interaction,” he says.

“You build a brain that is connected to the simulation of the face, and you can see the thoughts and what is going on in the head. You feel like you are connecting with something that is alive, and the animation becomes more real.”.

For his doctorate in engineering, he developed an anatomically correct virtual eye and showed how lifelike human features could be created on a screen by combining computer graphics with mathematics and physiology.

Wide range of applications

Dr Sagar believes his technology can be applied to a wide range of sectors – healthcare, education, entertainment such as video games, toys and films, and advertising.

In the medical field, patients with illnesses such as dementia and autism could interact with life-like images of a relative. A daughter, for instance, could be reading the news to her mother.

For distance learning, the technology could add emotional content to material and the interaction on the computer is more engaging and increases memory retention, says Dr Sagar.

The toys and digital characters in games can be more sophisticated, and people will become more involved with them and have a more positive experience, he said.

Dr Sagar and his team are developing prototypes and exploring commercial partnerships.