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NSF Grant Funds Human Gesturing Research at UC Merced

October 8, 2009

MERCED - Human beings are complex creatures. That simple fact
makes recreating human voice and action difficult in the virtual
world. As realistic as computer graphics and animation can be,
there is always an unnatural nuance or two that prevent viewers or
users from fully believing in what they see.

Computer scientist

Marcelo Kallmann
and cognitive scientist

Teenie Matlock
at the University of California, Merced, have
received about $500,000 from the National Science Foundation’s
Human-Centered Computing Program to try to improve that.

The research project will develop new techniques for
producing realistic human-like gestures based on data collected
from people in real life, with the particular goal of being able to
correctly parameterize gestures with respect to objects and
arbitrary locations in a virtual environment. The end result can
benefit anyone who needs to use animation or computer graphics,
from computer game and movie makers to creators of online tutorials.

“The first step for us is to understand how people use gestures
to instruct and demonstrate objects and actions in real situations,
which will then enable us to create a model to reproduce that
interaction for generic situations in the virtual world,” Kallmann said.

Matlock said that part of the complexity in duplicating human
action is that no two people move the same way.

“Gestures vary across situations and individuals,” she said.
“Some may make a sweeping motion as they point to the door; others
will look at the door as they point; a few will point at eye level;
others will point above or below. Even the same individual may
point in a variety of ways in response to repeated commands.”

What excites Kallmann and Matlock, both founding faculty at UC
Merced, most about this specific grant is that it will allow two
graduate students coming from different disciplines to work
together. David Huang (
) and Stephanie Huette (
social and cognitive
) are scheduled to work full-time on the project for
three years.

Matlock and Huette will create the human experiments to analyze
how subjects gesture. Based on their data, Kallmann and Huang will
create computer models to parameterize and generalize the gestures
to new situations in the virtual world.

“Having cognitive scientists take part in this research will
help with the validation of our results,” Kallmann said. “They are
the experts in how and why humans do what they do.”

At the conclusion of their three-year grant, Kallmann and
Matlock hope to create a database of parameterized gestures that
can be used by graphic programmers and animators to make their jobs
easier in a variety of applications.

“It is very costly for programmers working on design and
animation to hand-code gestures, which is standard practice,”
Matlock said.

“Also, gestures cannot be easily parameterized to different
locations, for instance, so that a pointing motion can target an
object that can be placed anywhere in an interactive application,”
Kallmann added. “Our database will include computational tools to
achieve such parameterizations, opening the way to achieve
high-quality results in interactive training and education based on
virtual environments.”

Together with colleagues from the School of Engineering,
Kallmann and Matlock have also been previously awarded with other
grants for collaborative research. They were awarded two major
research instrumentation grants from the National Science
Foundation in 2007 and 2008. One of these grants funded the

visualization and motion-capture facility
at UC Merced, and the
other paid for the purchase of

humanoid robots
. In total, they have been awarded nearly $1.25
million, which are contributing to the school’s establishment of
the Center on Autonomous and Interactive Systems.


Tonya Luiz