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Video fun with avatars and Skype

By , Network World
April 03, 2006 12:06 AM ET
Gibbs

Network World - A couple of weeks ago we stumbled across a very odd video called "Breakup" on YouTube. The video stars a young lady named Melody who is just talking.

If you know Melody, we're sure her video that discusses her breakup with her boyfriend is moving and poignant. For the rest of us Melody notes that "My videos may bore you," and she's right, except for one thing: When the video opens she's wearing heavy-framed glasses that she removes by waving her hand in front of her face, whereupon the glasses disappear. The glasses reappear and are then replaced with a gas mask and then a diving mask.

As the accessories move with Melody's face (the cat's muzzle was impressive), we thought this was a pretty neat trick, so we had to find out what she was using. Melody's profile listed her camera - a Logitech QuickCam Orbit MP - thereby saving us from doing any really investigative journalism.

After that it was a mere step over to Logitech's PR folks, and posthaste there was a Logitech QuickCam Fusion Webcam and software waiting for us.

The QuickCam Fusion Webcam is a 1.3-megapixel USB camera with a built-in microphone and a button to take snapshots. The camera provides fairly good video - it displays visual noise at medium light levels and its frame rate appears to be around 20 frames per second - but for about $100, it's a pretty good value.

The effects product - which is free - is called Logitech Video Effects. It was launched last August and is based on Logitech's face-tracking software, which enables cameras to identify, follow and focus on human faces. When a face that has been found moves within the camera's field of view the camera attempts to keep the face in the center of the frame as much as possible.

This is really cool, but Video Effects goes further by allowing you to replace yourself with an avatar. The software tracks facial expressions using as many as 22 points on a user's face. This allows an avatar to be displayed that copies the user's facial movements and expressions. The face-tracking system also allows Video Effects to position accessories, such as eyeglasses, over a user's eyes.

You can select only one accessory or avatar at a time (a shame because we were ready for some serious Mr. Potato Head-type games). Accessories include those we already mentioned as well as heavy eyebrows (alas, no uni-brow), a curly moustache, Groucho Marx-style glasses and moustache, a crown and so on.

For avatars you can choose from an alien, a gingerbread person, a dinosaur, a shark (which is very cool), a car, a stick figure (which is also pretty cool), a Tiki face or a number of generic human faces (that are not at all cool).

The face tracking works well as long as the lighting is just right. Accessories seemed to be less fussy about facial lighting, but that's probably because they don't need the detail required to track expressions. Until we more or less completely rearranged the lighting we couldn't get the avatars to work at all.

We also tried using the QuickCam Fusion Webcam with the latest release of Skype, which now supports video, and found it works well. We called Mr. Cool Tools (aka Keith Shaw), who also has a Quickcam Fusion, and tried adding accessories and running avatars. These worked but appeared to suck up processor cycles, making the video occasionally jerky.

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