Software Turns Your Face into a Na’Vi from ‘Avatar’

To promote the Earth Day release of the movie "Avatar" on Blu-ray and DVD, a company has designed an interactive display that lets people see what they would look like as the blockbuster's blue-skinned aliens called the Na'vi.

The station at The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles uses advanced facial recognition software to morph a picture of a person into their very own avatar and represents the cutting-edge in interactive advertising.

The technology "is basically looking at people's faces in real-time and morphing them right in front of their eyes to a Na'vi," said Steve Birnhak, chief executive officer of New York City-based Inwindow Outdoor, the designer of the "Avatar"-themed public display. "It retains individual facial characteristics, so it's recognizably still you, just now you’re blue and you have cat eyes."

The display by Inwindow Outdoor might provide a taste of what's to come as advertisers look to engage with audiences both online and in the physical world with so-called augmented reality ads that blend in eye-catching, computer-generated elements.

Augmented reality is essentially the addition of virtual imagery to the "real" environment we see. A classic example is the yellow "first down" line in football that appears on television screens.

Bringing graphical displays and other such "special effects" including holograms and passerby-triggered sights and sounds into the realm of advertising is a growing technological trend. Apple, for example, recently announced new iAds aiming at a rich, almost game-like interactive experience instead of a standard static or video advertisement hawking a product.

"Technology has finally caught up with what marketers have dreamed about since the Internet went commercial in 1995," said Lance Porter, a professor at Louisiana State University's (LSU) Manship School of Mass communications and who worked for four years as executive director of Internet marketing for Disney.

In the last decade, technology "has moved so quickly that now so many things are possible" from a marketing perspective, Porter said, and that the use of facial recognition algorithms will take advertising to another level.  

Becoming a Na'vi

To get morphed into an alien alter ego from the fictional moon Pandora, people first step up to one of the three video screens at Inwindow Outdoor's "Avatar" display in Los Angeles. A camera detects the persons' face, an on-screen outline appears for them to situate their head and then a picture is snapped.

Next, a computer program maps 40 feature points on the fans' faces, including points around the eye corners, noses, outlines of mouths, and even ears.

In about a second, the face on the screen morphs from a human to that of a wide-eyed, blue-skinned, striped countenance speckled with the Na'vi's signature bioluminescent dots.

Recognizing a person's face is only the beginning of the morphing process, Inwindow Outdoor said. The most challenging part is how to transform a user's facial characteristics into a unique Na'vi face.

To do so, Inwindow Outdoor's staff analyzed Na'vi faces from the movie and compared them with real human faces mathematically. The distance between two eyes on a Na'vi face is wider and the nose broader than on a human face, for instance. The software applies this proportion to the various human users' face widths, thereby preserving their actual geometries as the changeover occurs.

In this way, the program flexibly incorporates a person's genuine facial features, and even retains cosmetic accessories.

The only superimposed graphics are the big, yellowish feline eyes, so whatever else is on someone's face, such as a headband, stays in place and is tinted blue and spotted. The blue skin is converted directly from the human's real skin color by modifying the hue.

After their transformation, people can use the display's touch screen to enter their email addresses to receive the Pandoran version of themselves.

New frontiers in advertising

This latest leap in interactive advertising evolved from the first such outdoor augmented reality promotional campaign for last winter's 3-D animated film "Coraline."

In storefronts in seven cities nationally, Inwindow Outdoor designed a display wherein a person looking at a virtual mirror would suddenly see sewn-on buttons in place of their eyes, a reference to characters in the movie.

"That was fairly simplistic in the sense that you just map out someone's face and superimpose imagery on top of their existing image," said Birnhak.

Projectors and speakers provided other visual and auditory elements and a gesture-based window where ghosts appeared when someone stopped to look.

As simple as it was, the "Coraline" display was a big jump from Inwindow Outdoor's early days converting abandoned storefronts into advertisements with looped video.

What's in store

Looking ahead, Birnhak said his company has some other projects in the works that will further expand augmented reality advertising based on clients' wishes.

For a sense of how augmented reality could fundamentally change the way people peruse advertisements and shop, one sample idea on Inwindow Outdoor's Web site involves "looking into a mirror where you see yourself wearing sunglasses without ever having to try them on."

In these ways and others, LSU's Porter thinks that augmented reality will soon make major inroads into advertising on cell phones and other handheld devices. Future marketing ventures like Inwindow Outdoor's "Avatar" promo will send augmented reality pictures right to cell phones while opening up new layers of customer interactivity.

"The mobile device is the missing piece," Porter said.