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Ever since Frank Lampard's should-have-been-a-goal shot bounced behind the line before being disallowed at the England v Germany World Cup tie last summer, fans have condemned the organising body, Fifa, for its technophobia. Some 45 years earlier, England benefited from a linesman's decision to allow Geoff Hurst's dubious goal against Germany at Wembley and won the tournament. But the difference was that by 2010 Fifa could have invested in various types of goal-line technology.
Whether or not the football body takes action before the next World Cup, technology experts are feverishly working on new-generation devices . But much of that research does not happen in media powerhouses or big sport clubs – it is done by academics. And some of the leading experts are based on British campuses.
The University of Surrey's visual media research group is headed up by Professor Adrian Hilton. His team works on video analysis, computer graphics and animation techniques, and regularly works with broadcasters such as the BBC, as well as big film studios, to develop 3D techniques and graphics. One of Surrey's big areas of recent research was its collaboration with the BBC for its "iview" project, which allows sports pundits to analyse matches from a huge array of angles to get the best view.
"It works by using the footage streaming in from the usual 8-12 cameras around a stadium," Hilton explains. "From that, we use our scanning technology to reconstruct a 3D model of the scene, like a computer graphic, which commentators can use to render any viewpoint.
"So when they're talking about a particular instant in, say, a football game, they can view it from the sideline, or the referee's perspective, or the goalie's – even if there wasn't a camera there."
The technology is currently being trialled by the BBC, but, with Lampard's shot in mind, Hilton adds: "In principle the iview system can also solve specific goal-line issues, but the main reason it wasn't used in the World Cup was the approval of the governing bodies rather than the technology itself."
It's not all about football, however. The Surrey team is working with the BBC on technology for athletics fans, finessing a way to measure athletes' movements using footage from just one broadcast camera. "The aim is to allow overlay of 3D skeletal motion on the video footage and provide analysis of actor movement," says Hilton. "There's a big push for 3D broadcasting, but it normally needs a lot of extra cameras in order to create that all-round experience. Using our 3D resconstruction technology it's possible to make footage from a single camera into 3D afterwards. It's much cheaper."
Hilton's interest in 3D imaging began with his PhD in mechanical engineering. "I became interested in artificial intelligence and how people understand and navigate the real world through seeing and hearing," he says. He took up a research post in the computer vision group at Surrey, where he first created "hand-held" 3D capture technology, allowing users to measure 3D objects by running laser light across their surfaces. "The technology was commercialised, and used for automotive design and in entertainment industries," he says.
Animators, including those behind the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, paid the University of Surrey a license fee to use the technology. On Walking with Dinosaurs, artists made models of dinosaurs, with the 3D capture technology then used to create realistic animated models.
Next, Hilton worked on a way to capture 3D models of people from photos, eventually developing another spin-off company, AvatarMe. That was inovlved in making 3D avatars of real people to "walk into" popular video games. It was also used to create 3D avatars for over 250,000 visitors to the Millennium Dome exhibition.
Many of the blockbuster effects on films and TV are also a product of universities. "Most special effects in films probably have their origins in academic research," says Hilton.
The number of steps between academic research and its use in production makes it tough to identify the films that use Hilton's technology, but film production companies that use it had a hand in Avatar, Harry Potter and the recent Batman films.
Hilton is now working on ways to support the creation of digital "doubles" of actors in film production. "In films like Avatar, there was a requirement for visual effects that change the appearance of an actor after they have been filmed," he says. "We're investigating how to integrate 3D capture technologies into the established film production pipeline. But it's extremely challenging – the visual-effects have to be "photo-realistic" on the big screen, and the technologies have to work with existing production tools."
The university's work with film and TV firms echoes partnerships around the world. "Several US universities, including MIT, Stanford, Washington and Carnegie Mellon are involved in collaborations with the film industry, and the Max-Plank Institute in Germany and ETH Zurich are also active in reconstruction from video," says Hilton. "But our research has contributed advances at the leading edge of this field over the past decade, pioneering a number of new technologies."
However there may be obstacles ahead. The research is mainly paid for by UK or EU research agencies. "Support for academic research even in collaboration with industry is much more difficult to obtain in the current environment," Hilton admits. "Funding agencies are directing money towards strategic priorities. Support for the adventurous research, which has led to many of the advances we've made over the last ten to 15 years, has become relatively difficult to obtain."
Still, Hilton predicts more applications for his 3D model-making technology will emerge, perhaps including better-fitting jeans. "We're working with the London College of Fashion to make a low-cost recognition of 3D body shape to improve clothing shape design," he says. The Surrey academics are also in talks with big players in the UK games industry, looking at a way to create ever-more realistic animated interactive characters. The UK's "very strong creative industries ensure we are collaborating on challenging problems that make a real difference in industry."