Students will be amongst the first to try CyberSet technology

Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto is the first North American institution to introduce Orad virtual set technology to its students, according to the school.

The technology is similar to chroma-key, in which a computer-generated still picture is imposed on a blue screen. Israel-based Orad Hi-Tec Systems takes this one step further, however, by building a three-dimensional, movable set over a grid. This allows users to interact with the setting.

Matthew Straeb, president of Orad in New York, said the CyberSet technology is a natural extension of three-dimensional graphics and animation.

“We can import (images from) MIA or Softimage and all other major packages from off the shelf. So the sets are created in those programs and they’re imported into the system. Then the system takes the images and converts them so that you have optic files and switches,” Straeb explained. “You can turn things off and on and move them around inside the virtual set.”

Seneca is using the technology to teach students in their digital media arts programs, according to Derek Elliott, professor of animation at Seneca.

“We’re using it as an educational tool to teach our students how to use it out in the industry. We’re using it to help our broadcasting and radio students to get used to working with it, because of course there is nothing behind the people on air when there is a virtual set,” Elliott said.

The program has only been running for six months, but Elliott hopes it will eventually give students a better shot at upcoming job opportunities.

“There are six companies using this technology in Toronto right now. I think four television stations are using it, and that’s really a high number in the city,” he said. “In this area especially, it gives our students a pretty good opportunity and even a good edge over other students who haven’t been educated on this type of technology.”

However, current audio-video multimedia student Stephen Mensher isn’t counting on that edge.

“It really wasn’t incorporated into the curriculum. There wasn’t very much hands-on use,” Mensher said, adding that teachers did not receive sufficient training. “It’s an advanced piece of software. You can’t just dump it on a college and say, ‘Here, use this,’ and learn how to use it.”

He added there were training problems, which in turn led to technical glitches.

Mensher doesn’t think the minimal training he had on the Orad technology will give him a career advantage, at least not without pursuing additional training elsewhere.

“Very few students had any interaction with the system. I don’t think anyone has actually been inside there except me and nobody was able to train me on it,” he said.

But he noted students in the future will probably be able to take advantage of the technology. “I hope [the faculty] work it into the curriculum next year. Somebody would have to take steps to bring in a professional to teach, though,” Mensher said.

He added students finally built a set but they had to bring in someone from GM, which uses the technology, to make it work.

“It’s extremely innovative and it’s the first of its kind,” Mensher said, although he was disappointed that the main use so far seemed to be for advertising.

“They’re using it to put fake ads on football fields that look like they’re embedded in the grass,” he noted. “They can sell hundreds more ads because they can key in different ads for different countries.”

Elliott said the system can only help students who are planning on working within this field.

“A lot of the things that you see, like in movies, are on chroma-key and special effects has to add it in later or cut it together. With this technology we’re going to see people doing that in real time,” he said.

CyberSet runs on the SGI Onyx2 Reality computer and can handle virtual sets that are comprised of up to 7,500 polygons. Each shape in the virtual set is some sort of polygon and the larger the number of polygons, the more realistic the set, according to Orad.

Straeb said Orad’s technology includes a pattern recognition system which enables the real-time extraction of camera parameters, while infrared detection automatically locates the position of the actors and cameras within the virtual environment. He added this was originally military technology and was used for training.

Straeb noted the system can cost anywhere from US$150,000 to $450,000.