Bogey and other Hollywood stars never die in the virtual world

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John Wayne, in the saddle again for an all-new adventure? Groucho Marx, back from the dead to hawk cigars? Cybersex with Sharon Stone’s bootlegged digital clone? Such was the promise and peril on display at the Virtual Humans 3 conference held June 16-17 at the Universal City Hilton in Los Angeles, where propellerheads met power suits to discuss the technical, legal, and ethical aspects of creating realistic computer-generated actors.

“Virtual humans” technology promises to let users create digital simulacra of people alive, dead, or fictional, who can actually interact with others in real time and star in all-new scenarios. Such is the future envisioned by Jeffrey Lotman, CEO of the celebrity licensing company Global Icons and a conference participant, when he describes ads with “a Mikey who never ages, a Mr. Whipple who never dies.”

It was this prospect—okay, this deeply frightening prospect—of creating exploitable “celebudroids” that inspired the conference’s liveliest panel, titled “Digital Kidnapping.” On computer screens set up in the hotel ballroom, a virtual Abe Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address and a resurrected W.C. Fields cracked wise with audience members, even while his living grandson, author and screenwriter Ronald Fields, sat on the panel and warned against the sleazier abuses made possible by the new technology.

Asked what the online obsessives who digitally paste celebrity faces onto porn-star bodies might do with photorealistic, interactive animation, Fields replied: “In this area, everything is new and nothing’s new. Several years back, someone was selling posters of an actor impersonating my grandfather—nude! The things that are possible with technology are just more of the same, only with more electrons.”

But Marlene Dietrich’s grandson and fellow panelist Peter Riva relishes the idea of his grandmother performing again in cyberspace. “My goal is to put everything we know about Marlene Dietrich into a computerized playbook,” he said, “and put it into a paint tube for future artists to use. Dietrich isn’t dead, and [with this technology] she can make entirely new movies.” Falling in love again, indeed.

Meanwhile, flesh-and-blood performers can’t be happy over these developments—especially since a digital Dietrich won’t lose motivation or stalk off to her trailer. But Screen Actors Guild president and panelist Richard Masur professed not to be worried. “[Living] actors won’t be replaced,” he said, “because people go to the movies to see people they can make emotional contact with, and I don’t see virtual humans as providing that.”

It’s easy for Masur to be sanguine for now, since the jerky, cartoonish demos of Prince Charles and Humphrey Bogart on display at the conference represent the current state of the art. But the technology is advancing by the day, and while panelists argue over the ethics, others are forging ahead and putting virtual actors to work. Game company Interplay Productions is currently developing Star Trek: Secret of Vulcan Fury, due out in 1999, which combines new voice-overs from original Trek cast members with animated figures digitized from 3-D clay models of the Enterprise crew in their 1960s prime. A William Shatner who never ages or dies? Now, there’s a scary thought.

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