Digital Man Brings Cool to Engineering

Friday, February 22, 2008

By Kristina Andino
The Cedar Rapids Gazette

CEDAR RAPIDS — After a Humvee overturns, it’s a tight squeeze for a soldier to escape out the hatch, given all the body armor he wears. He has to drop his rifle to get out — not a good idea in enemy territory.

When the Army had this problem, who did the generals call? Santos.

He is a computer simulation, but cool. He sports a sixpack and a tattoo. He has a realistic heartbeat, a skeleton and muscles and gets tired when he lifts weights too long. If you look through the scope of his gun, you can tell whether he is focused on his target.

A University of Iowa team at the Center for ComputerAided Design has been working on the super-realistic digital human. Anith Mathai, the Virtual Research Program’s engineering team leader, introduced Santos to about 100 high school students last night during a session at the Science Station on engineering careers.

Mathai told students why Santos matters. With a new car, sometimes there are un foreseen glitches — like a driver can’t reach the brake.

“To save time and money, what if we make a digital human who can go in and check the digital model?” he said.

When Santos wears tight clothes, his range of motion shrinks. The human modeling software that runs him can predict human posture and motion.

Mathai said Santos’ think ing mechanism has been outsourced to another group. It will be similar to artificial intelligence in video games. The digitized man will be taught to always turn left when he sees a red object, for example.

“Won’t that result in him only making logical decisions?” asked Sam Miller, 15, a freshman at Linn-Mar High School.

So far, yes, Mathai said.

Judging from Liz Fowler, 18, a senior at Jefferson High School, Engineers Week and related programs are really reaching students interested in science and math. It was the second time she had seen Mathai’s presentation.

Earlier, students visited area engineers’ booths at the Iowa Engineering Society’s career guidance event.

Anna Westphal, 15, a sophomore, enjoyed the Skyworks booth that featured the inner workings of cell phones.

“I always wondered how something so small could produce such a result,” Westphal said of cell phone circuits. “That really helped.”

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