Doug Roble: What Happens When Visual Effects Aren't Limited To Just Movies?

13 hours ago
Originally published on July 12, 2019 8:51 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Digital Manipulation.

About Doug Roble's TED Talk

Visual effects researcher Doug Roble is developing technology that creates hyper-realistic digital versions of humans. He explores the implications of this technology — both for good and bad.

About Doug Roble

Doug Roble is the Senior Director of Software R&D at the visual effects production company Digital Domain. He joined the company over 20 years ago after getting his PhD in computer science from the Ohio State University. The company produces realistic special effects for movies, video games, and virtual reality.

He's currently the chair of the Motion Picture Academy's Sci/Tech Awards and a member of the Academy's Sci/Tech Council. And two of the tools he's built over the years have won Sci/Tech Academy Awards themselves.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Hello, Doug.

DOUG ROBLE: Hello.

RAZ: Hello, Doug. It's Guy Raz here. How are you?

ROBLE: Very good. How are you?

RAZ: Good. I am talking to the real Doug, right? This is real Doug, not digital Doug?

ROBLE: You know, before I started this, I did not realize how often I would be asked that question.

RAZ: (Laughter).

ROBLE: It's quite annoying at work - people keep poking me to make sure that I'm actually there.

RAZ: This is Doug Roble, and Doug makes digital humans that look exactly like us.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBLE: I'm not a real person. I'm actually a copy of a real person. Although, I feel like a real person. It's kind of hard to explain. Hold on - I think I saw a real person - there's one. Let's bring him onstage.

RAZ: OK, so obviously, Doug, this is your voice on the TED stage. But because we're on the radio and not on TV, can you explain what's going on here?

ROBLE: Well, first of all, I'm wearing a motion capture suit. Then I'm also wearing a - basically, a bicycle helmet that has a camera and some lights attached to it. And the reason I'm wearing that is because I'm controlling a digital version of me at the same time that I'm out on stage.

RAZ: Yeah, there's a giant screen, and we're just seeing you on the screen. But it's a version of you made up of ones and zeros.

ROBLE: It is. It's - I'm basically controlling a computer game character.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBLE: What you see up there is a digital human. We call him DigiDoug. He's actually a 3D character that I'm controlling live, in real time.

RAZ: And Doug makes more than just digital versions of himself. For nearly three decades, he's worked on creating digital effects and digital humans for the film industry.

ROBLE: The next step would be to do an entire film where one character is just a computer-generated character who you just don't even realize is computer-generated.

RAZ: At that point, the possibilities are presumably - are endless, right? You could have that character do whatever you want it to do.

ROBLE: Yeah. I mean, it opens up a lot of doors. It could be really cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Doug Roble and DigiDoug continue this idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ROBLE: We've been putting humans and creatures into film that you accept as real. If they're happy, you should feel happy. And if they feel pain, you should empathize with them. If you were having a conversation with DigiDoug, one on one, is it real enough so that you could tell whether or not I was lying to you? So that was our goal. But why did we do this? First of all, it is just crazy cool.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBLE: How cool is it? Well, with the push of a button, I can deliver this talk as a completely different character.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBLE: This is Elbor. We put him together to test how this would work with a different appearance, right? And the cool thing about this technology is that, while I've changed my character, the performance is still all me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Right in the middle of your talk - so we're still seeing Digital Doug on the screen - you push a button, and then Digital Doug turns into a character named Elbor...

ROBLE: (Laughter).

RAZ: ...Who sort of looks like an elf or a troll. But he's mimicking - he's still you. Like, every turn of your head or microexpression - like, Elbor is mimicking that. You become Elbor.

ROBLE: Yes. We wanted to see how far we could push this technology. So here, we're taking my motion. And I'm over 6 foot tall. And we're transferring it on to this guy who's, I think, about 3-foot-6. So he's about half my size. It's just like, oh, look. I'm a little critter. And you talk about inhabiting a character. I really inhabited that character.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, every teeny movement of your mouth, of your face, like, Elbor was doing the same thing. And it was at that point in your talk where I freaked out - and not in a good way, Doug. I saw that, and I thought, this is going to be used in a really scary way. Right then at that point when I saw you turn into Elbor, I thought, wow, we can inhabit anybody. We will be able to inhabit anyone and pretend like we are them.

ROBLE: We are entirely aware of this. This is one of the big things with this technology - is that it presents so many neat opportunities. But at the exact same time, if we created a digital double of somebody who was famous and I put on the suit and then all of a sudden, I can control that famous person with my body and my face, that gets really, really creepy. And it gets really tricky. The one thing that's nice is to get a character of this quality right now, the barrier's extraordinarily high. When you say you were flabbergasted by it, when I see it, all I see are the flaws. And so there's still a level of reality that we want to push it towards.

RAZ: I mean, it's clear that we are heading there, that it will get perfect pretty soon. And at some point, the barrier will actually be pretty low to sort of getting into this. When I was a kid, there was a film that freaked me out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RUNNING MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) In the year 2017...

RAZ: It's called "The Running Man." And it was implausible. It was based around a prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RUNNING MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's a game between life and death.

RAZ: And Arnold Schwarzenegger was a prisoner in the Running Man. And, you know, the object was to escape being hunted down and then, you know, killed.

ROBLE: Yep.

RAZ: He was in this prison because he was framed for committing a massacre. And they made a fake video that showed him killing people. And when I was a kid, and you watched it, you thought, that's just implausible. How could you ever do that? And when I was watching your TED Talk, I had a flashback to that movie...

ROBLE: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Because as absurd as it was in the '80s or in the '90s, it's actually happening. We've already seen politicians' videos being manipulated. We just saw it not too long ago with the speaker of the House.

ROBLE: And that was an easy manipulation. And even if you did have a super good way of detecting these things, it's going to take time. And especially with the Internet now and everything, if a video like that goes out and it has a day or two to run around the world unmolested, if you come out later and say, oh, no, that was a fake video, people have moved on already. And they've - the damage is done. It's - hopefully, people have this nice dose of skepticism whenever they look at something and say, where's the source? Is this really what happened? I think that's key 'cause it's going to be really, really hard to stop.

RAZ: That's Doug Roble. He's a computer graphics researcher with Digital Domain. You can see Doug's full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIGITAL WITNESS")

ST VINCENT: (Singing) Digital witnesses. What's the point of even sleeping? If I can't show it, if you can't see me, what's the point of doing anything?

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show about Digital Manipulation this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more Ted Talks, check out ted.com com or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye and J.C. Howard, with help from Daniel Shubin and Brent Baughman. Our intern is Emmanuel Johnson. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.