«Digital culture announces the end of 'couch potatoes'»

Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), Markus Gross founded the computer graphics laboratory there in 1994. He has since conducted extensive research that led to major improvements in special effects and virtual reality systems. In 2008 he was appointed Director of DisneyResearch|Studios in Zurich, a position he holds in addition to his Professorship at ETHZ. He explains here the evolution of his research as well as the transformation of the relationship with the public that new technologies facilitate.

What are the dominant trends in your research today?

Markus Gross:What we are witnessing today is the convergence between the creation of images or computer graphics and computer vision in order to give meaning to all these images that we generate. At the heart of this are big data and artificial intelligence or, more precisely, machine learning.

What does machine learning bring?

In the past our models were parameterized so that our equations gave a representation of the physical world. However, the complexity of the physical world is such that these representations were imperfect even if the special effects could create an illusion. From now on, we start from a trove of data as well as data-driven representations that lead to much more sophisticated algorithms. But not everything can be described. With machine learning, you have less knowledge but more data. In the end, what you extract allows you to represent appearances more deeply, for example by taking into account materials. And it also adds the interactions between your virtual objects and their environment because machine learning algorithms considerably accelerate the ability to produce these images in near real time.

And the same goes for virtual characters, right?

It's true that over the past ten years, the virtual characters you find in movies like Aladdin or Avengers Infinity Wars have made spectacular progress. These digital characters now express quite credible emotions. The next wave of digital technologies will make it possible to animate these virtual characters in real time, for example in virtual and augmented reality environments.

Precisely which of these two technologies will break through first?

I personally bet on augmented reality. The idea of being able to insert a layer of digital information on top of the physical world is very powerful. This technology offers the ability to constantly update it through technologies such as 5G, almost infinite storage capacities and a new generation of connected glasses. Use cases of virtual reality are still limited. On the other hand, the ability to contextualize, geolocate and ultimately personalize real world experiences by adding all kinds of information is extremely powerful, not only for the entertainment sector but also for education.

To what extent will these new technologies change the relationship with the public?

These new experiences will be extremely interactive. And, moreover, they will also expand the public's creativity. This will mark the end of the passive spectator on his or her couch, the "couch potatoes." Instead, consumers will increasingly become "prosumers", co-producers of content. On the other hand, artificial intelligence tools will allow us to better understand public reactions and personalize experiences.

How does this translate into the research projects you are working on?

At Disney Research we created the Jungle platform. This is an experimental project through which we give users the opportunity to become part of the story. At the Media Center of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, we study how augmented reality modifies the user experience. For example, we have mapped the Paradeplatz, here in Zurich, with tools that will allow artists to exhibit their virtual works.

What role can Europe play in this emerging digital cultural economy?

The battle between the major platforms is almost exclusively between the United States and Asia. I believe that Europe must think in terms of verticals. What will this new culture imply not only for cultural production but in markets such as health and education? We certainly have cards to play in terms of content, but I think we should take a closer look at the possibilities opened up by artificial intelligence, particularly in the field of education.