Illustration of Gandalf at virtual reality meeting

USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos and Hao Li in a virtual reality meeting of the future (Illustration/Allan Davey)


Who wants to show up as Gandalf at their next meeting?

Thanks to USC Viterbi Professor Hao Li, you may one day be able to do that in virtual reality

October 11, 2016 Daniel Druhora

The department meeting, the division meeting, the strategy meeting, the “where is my Fiji coffee mug?” meeting. Dread them, love them or snooze through them, but every office has them. Talking heads congregate around a table, listening to rambling discussions while munching noodles and granola bars.

Chances are you’re not getting out of them.

But what if you could show up to the next meeting as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, the Night King from Game of Thrones or a talking pizza?

Thanks to the wizardry of Hao Li, a computer science professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, you’ll soon be able to do just that — in virtual reality, of course.

You’ve seen Li’s work in films like Furious 7 and The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies, where he teamed with Weta Digital to introduce novel ways of capturing micro-expressions in the face that were essential to creating natural dialogue and nuanced actor-specific emotions.

Li sees communications — even a typical office meeting — as one of the most immediate and productive uses of virtual reality.

We all agree that the conference room is probably not where your best ideas are born.

Hao Li

“We all agree that the conference room is probably not where your best ideas are born,” Li said. “We want to let people unleash their creativity and come up with their own ways to beat boredom during office meetings.”

Face-to-face interaction

His team, which includes graduate students Kyle Olszewski, Shunsuke Saito and Joseph J. Lim, developed a novel head-mounted display that enables complex facial and realistic speech animations that up until now were the realm of A-list digital artists.

“We built the first face-to-face interaction between VR users wearing head-mounted displays in collaboration with Oculus last year, and now we have a solution that enables realistic speech animation using deep neural networks,” Li explained.

Their wearable system is based on FOVE, the world’s first eye-tracking VR headset, which uses integrated cameras to record eye motions and a mouth camera to track the lower part of the face. According to Li, people will show up as orcs to meetings in the next year or two as major platforms begin deploying the technology.

What will your avatar be? If you were wondering, Li’s own repertoire is limited. He prefers to show up as a bobblehead if invited to your next meeting, although he admits stranger things have happened.

But even if you’re an orc, your co-workers will still see you rolling your eyes in total boredom during the meeting. Sorry.