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The Human Digitizer

Posted by on May 19, 2017 | Photographer Interviews

In “Here They Lie,” one of the debut titles on the PlayStation virtual reality platform, players traverse an immersive 3D hellscape. When the terrifying beast-humans turn their gaze on you, the terror is real, and for that, you can thank Alexx Henry.

A screenshot from the Sony PlayStation VR Game “Here They Lie.” Image © Tangentlemen

The characters in “Here They Lie” owe their likeness to real human models scanned by Henry’s xxArray, a massive 3D photogrammetry scanning system that uses more than 100 DSLRs and computers to capture and digitize human subjects. It’s one of the more exciting innovations in photo technology, but for Henry, it’s just the latest step in a career spent pushing boundaries in imaging technology.

Early in his career, in 2008, Henry created “living covers” for magazines like VIV and Outside. The process entailed building a 3D environment that a “virtual camera” flew through, bringing cover lines and models to life on tablet and computer screens.

But while the environments were 3D, the models were not. “That was the first time I can really remember articulating the desire to be able to have the characters—the people—in 3D as well,” Henry says. “What that allowed us to do is completely free the camera…even give the viewer the camera.”

To that end, Henry and his team developed a prototype scanning rig with 21 5K cinema cameras capturing footage at 24 fps; however, the amount of data produced proved to be unmanageable by 2012 standards. They eventually shifted to a photo-based rig, with more than 100 Nikon D5300 cameras. Subjects walk into the room and strike a pose; when the rig is triggered, strobes and cameras fire simultaneously, creating a 3D scan that can later be brought to life with animation. Each camera has a dedicated computer and network interface, so the processing happens in parallel. Henry’s partner and CTO Tudor Pascu—who holds a Ph.D. in computer science—wrote custom code that helps all the components of the rig talk to each other.

Alexx Henry and his 100-camera xxAray rig. Photo courtesy of Alexx Henry

Right now the applications are limited by location and budget (Henry plans to develop an affordable, mobile version down the road), but even now, the implementations are interesting, and sometimes downright stunning. In addition to video game clients, Henry has worked with artist Alexa Meade, who uses human canvasses for her trompe l’oeil installation art, to allow viewers to experience her work in 3D. He also built an iOS app called Art and Skin, which scans people with large tattoos, allowing viewers to explore the work in 3D.

But Henry’s gaze is fixed well beyond ads, video games or even visual art. He sees the potential for the xxArray to be used in medical applications, such as a full-body scan that might be used to detect skin cancer. His most ambitious goal is to make the array affordable and mobile enough for everyone in the world to be scanned, with the belief that people can use these avatars to make their lives better. He cites a Stanford study that used digital avatars to conduct a clinical psychology trial, introducing young people to a digital version of themselves, aged by 40 years, and judging how the introduction affected their plans for the future. “One of the things that happens when you’re interacting with a potential version of yourself…you look at the older version of you, and that abstraction [of your future] goes away,” Henry says. “It’s real. And suddenly you’re looking at a version of yourself that you’re hopefully going to be, and it connects you a little bit more to that.”

–Matthew Ismael Ruiz

This article was featured in the Spring 2017 issue of PDNedu. Read the issue for free at digitalmag.pdnedu.com