LifeFX, Kodak Put Faces on Net Mail

Wednesday, February 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEWTON, Mass. (AP) — A wink, a nod, a grimace — all can turn the meaning of a conversation on its head.

And all could add a lot to an e-mail. Ever wish you could see the sender's face to see what he's REALLY saying? Ever wish you could punctuate your own messages with something more powerful than :)?

It's starting to happen. LifeFX is using image-morphing computer technology to bring faces to life on screen. The company's Facemail program offers generic models who gesture and move in at least semi-realistic form as they read e-mails using voice technology from IBM.

Other companies are working on similar technology, but Newton-based LifeFX got a big boost in bringing the product to the mass market this week when it announced a deal with Kodak that could let people convert their own photographs into talking, reusable Internet ``stand-ins'' within a year.

Kodak headquarters
AP/Bill Sikes [29K]

``The Internet was supposed to be an interactive visual medium,'' says Lucille Salhany, who founded LifeFX in 1999 after holding top jobs at Fox and UPN television networks. ``It turned out to be a text medium up till now.''

The free Facemail program already has become a popular download since debuting in December. The company says it is compatible with leading e-mail programs such as Microsoft Outlook, Hotmail and AOL.

Recipients who do not have Facemail installed on their machine can either read the messages as regular text e-mail or click a link to the LifeFX site to download the program.

If Kodak, the Rochester, N.Y.-based film giant, and tiny start-up LifeFX can make the technology work, users could someday use photos as the model for a kind of cyberspace doppelganger. When a friend opens an e-mail, the sender's face would read out the text. Further down the line, the computer could learn to imitate voices.

It's part Hollywood and maybe even part Frankenstein, but the technology and others like it could add more drama, more sight and sound, to the Net.

Imagine not only talking Christmas cards and yearbooks, but professors giving lectures and doctors giving advice. but wait? wouldn't people rather see a video clip of the professors or the doctors?

Unlike streaming video, which has to be recorded, a ``stand-in'' can be reused infinitely, does not require a high-speed Internet connection, and it takes no more energy than writing an e-mail. The only added work is a few typed commands known as emoticons— such as :) for a smile — that activate different facial expressions on the ``stand-in'' on the recipient's computer to bring the faces to life.

Currently, seven expressions are offered: smile, wink, kiss, frown, angry, disgusted and surprised.

Big companies such as Microsoft and Apple are also working to bring faces to life on computer screens, as are smaller companies such as bioVirtual, which offers software called 3DMeNow, and Digimask, which creates 3-D models using two sample photographs.

LifeFX insists its models look far more realistic because of a patented technology that uses mathematical equations to mimic facial movements.

But will it fly in the marketplace? After all, videophones have been around for ages, but never caught on.

Salhany and co-president Michael Rosenblatt say Facemail is a completely different concept.

''(With videophones) the lighting has to be perfect, you have to your hair combed, you have to have make up, you have to have a suit,'' Salhany says. With Facemail, she says, everyone looks as good as their best picture.

David Smith, an analyst with the Gartner Group, says photo-attachments to instant messages are already popular, and talking, moving pictures is the next logical step.

``I see the big connection with something like instant-messaging, AOL, something consumer-oriented,'' he says.

The Kodak deal brings credibility to LifeFX, which has seen its stock fall from $32 a share last March to $3.75 at midday Tuesday, and says it doesn't expect its first revenues until the last quarter of this year. LifeFX gets to share Kodak's marketing muscle and enormous reach, which includes potentially lucrative markets like the millions of school photos Kodak processes every year. Kodak gets a share of what it thinks is the next big thing in photography.

``We're obviously interested in any potentially innovative or creative ways to allow people to do things with their pictures,'' said Kodak spokesman Charles Smith.

But the companies' goal of making a stand-in as easy to develop as a photograph won't be easy.

Right now, setting up a stand-in requires several days of a process called ``full motion capture,'' originally developed by two New Zealand researchers and which the company refuses to discuss in detail. Still, LifeFX says it will be able to automate the photograph-to-stand-in process within a year.

Other possible markets include games, wireless devices and even appliances such as refrigerators.

No matter what the medium, Salhany says, people respond better to faces than words alone.

``If people didn't love faces they'd watch radio,'' she says.


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