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Program Creates Virtual Images
Researcher finds way to convert photos into 3-D graphics

By Lisa Nishimoto
Contributing Writer

Three years ago, Paul Debevec dreamed about flying around the UC Berkeley campus.

Last year, he realized his dream -- virtually, that is. As a doctoral student in the UC Berkeley computer science department, Debevec created a computer program called Facade which converts ordinary photographs into three-dimensional computer graphics.

Debevec, 26, used his program last spring to create "The Campanile Movie," a three-minute short film that features a virtual flight over the UC Berkeley campus centered around Sather Tower. Since the film blends real footage of the campus and computer graphics, the image is not perfect, but it is at times difficult to tell the difference between the real and artificial.

The movie debuted at a film showcase at SIGGRAPH '97, an annual computer graphics trade show held last August in Los Angeles. Since then, it has appeared on television in Spain, at a digital art show in Italy and last week, on national television in Japan.

Traditionally, to create a realistic three-dimensional image of a building, computer graphic artists have had to draw the building using exact geometric measurements, then apply synthetic texture and lighting effects.

"The problem is, it's extraordinarily difficult to get results that (look) as real as photos," said Debevec.

His program takes measurements directly from photographs to capture a building's geometry and create a model of that building's shape. The software then projects the textures and lighting from the photograph onto the computer-generated building model to create a realistic image, much like a slide projected onto a blank screen.

"We basically cheat," Debevec said. "All of the lighting has been done by nature."

R. Zane Rutledge, a 29-year-old freelance special effects artist in San Francisco, said that the program could potentially save filmmakers a tremendous amount of time and effort.

"Facade will allow us to build the 3-D geometry using photographs as input, rather than having to build those sets ourselves," Rutledge said. "His program will do a lot of the dirty work for us."

Debevec's software also makes it possible for filmmakers and special effects artists to create shots on computers that otherwise would require expensive machinery and a huge production crew.

"You can actually tweak what a camera does. You can loop around faster, go closer to a building," Debevec said.

Debevec created his three-dimensional model of the UC Berkeley campus using only 20 photographs. UC Berkeley architecture Professor Charles Benton helped him take aerial photos of the campus on a windy day with a camera mounted on a kite. Then, aided by a small team of graduate and undergraduate students, Debevec spent a few intense months scripting and producing the film in time to submit to the computer graphics show.

Last month, Robert Miller, a San Francisco-based independent filmmaker, screened "The Campanile Movie" during a talk about new digital filmmaking techniques for independent filmmakers at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Once Debevec's ideas are integrated into commercial software packages, they could be a boon to independent filmmakers who have small budgets and big dreams, said Miller, who plans to use Debevec's techniques in his next film.

"I think Paul's work is significant for artists to realize the visions of the stories they want to tell. It allows me to create a landscape which could not exist in reality," said Miller. "To create that landscape using traditional methods would be prohibitively expensive.

"People came up after my talk at Sundance and didn't ask for my phone number, they asked for Paul's," said Miller.

For large special effects houses and big-budget Hollywood films, Debevec's work can help streamline the production process.

"I don't think the benefit to big studios is a huge step," explained Rutledge. "It's an enhancement to something they're already doing."

But the program will not take just any object and convert it into a realistic three-dimensional image. It is designed to work with photographs of objects with regular geometry, such as buildings. It does not work with irregular shaped objects such as people.

"For complex structures, it's really inept right now," said George Borshukov, a former computer science graduate student who worked on the project.

Techniques used in programs such as Facade have yet to become integrated with mainstream computer graphics software. Rutledge explained that while Debevec's research has broken new ground in computer graphics, his work is limited to a certain extent by being in an academic setting away from the constantly changing world of industry.

"We're looking toward making this into a commercial application, and it may go through licensing," Debevec said, explaining that negotiations between corporations and academia are often delicate. "I don't consider myself primarily to be an entrepreneur."

The son of a University of Illinois physicist, Debevec grew up using computers when "software" meant cards with holes which were manually fed into a clunky computer processor.

"I used to play on the punch cards. I would have total gibberish on all of them," he said.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1992, he went to work for Microsoft Corp., in Seattle, Wash. He soon realized, however, that he did not just want to create tools -- he also wanted to use them.

So when he set out to create Facade, he said that it was purely for selfish reasons.

"I wanted to be first person to use this tool," he said. "I prefer to be the person who actually goes and does something."

Debevec received his doctorate in computer science in 1996 and is now staying on at UC Berkeley as a researcher. He is now working on ways to create realistic lighting on computer-generated objects, but finds himself torn between the roles of scientist and artist.

"I definitely like to do art," he said. "But it's hard to do art if you're using new technology because the interesting thing going on is the technology. The technological accomplishment overshadows the artistic accomplishment."

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