Marilyn Monroe, synthespian -- Electric Sandbox hopes to heat up the CR-ROM world with a virtual version of the blond sexpot

By Ken Tucker
Updated October 13, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

If the words controlled explosion describe your worst bad hair day, you’ve got more in common with Marilyn Monroe than you knew. ”Neither me nor my partner knows anything about hair,” says Electric Sandbox’s Scott Billups, co-creator, with Mark Lambert, of Virtual Marilyn, a computer-generated synthetic likeness of the blond bombshell. After trying to tousle her pixilated hair, they resorted to a device digital-effects designers use to simulate explosions. Call it multimedia Rogaine.

Like a high-tech Dr. Frankenstein, Billups is creating a wholly digital ”synthespian” for GTE Entertainment using motion-capture devices (for movement) and 3-D full-body scans of a half-dozen real-life Marilyn impersonators. One model’s lips are added to another’s eyes and yet another’s legs, all sewn together electronically using animation software. Billups says Virtual Marilyn has ”more elements in her face than in the Jurassic Park dinosaurs.”

The goal is to create a character with ”random consciousness” that can interact without the multiple-choice interfaces common in today’s computer games. With the addition of voice-recognition software, Billups foresees a day when you could actually carry on a conversation with Virtual Marilyn. ”She could go on the David Letterman show,” laughs Paul Rhoads, GTE’s director of product development.

More immediately, Virtual Marilyn could show up in CD-ROM games, as online hostess for GTE’s planned interactive gaming network, even star in feature films as early as next spring.

While Billups predicts that computer alteration will not make actors obsolete, he theorizes that ”by the end of the century, some of your best friends won’t be people.” Meantime, GTE is hoping that Virtual Marilyn will have the charm of the real thing. Now, if they can just do something about that hair…