Iowa City Press-Citizen: Digital Humans Have Practical Uses

Sunday, September 4, 2011

By Emily Schettler
Iowa City Press-Citizen

UI's Virtual Soldier:

A diverse talent pool at the University of Iowa's Center for Computer-Aided Design is working to develop one of the world's most sophisticated digital human models.

"There's Digital Human Modeling in general, and then there's SANTOS," said Tim Marler, a senior research scientist at UI's Virtual Soldier Research Program.

A group of more than 30 staff members with backgrounds in everything from art, graphics and avatar development to physiology, engineering and video game design, have spent eight years developing and advancing SANTOS, a 3D digital avatar they can use to model human behavior and the impact of different scenarios on people.

"You look for something that humans do not interact with directly or indirectly, and there's not much," Marler said. "Today, so much of that stuff is made on computers first. It makes sense that you have to have a human on the computer."

The VSR staff unveiled SANTOS in its first year of operation in 2003 but continues to advance his qualities, Marler said.

One thing that sets the VSR avatar apart is his fidelity, Marler said.

"He looks so realistic," Marler said.

SANTOS' designers thought of everything down to his six-pack-abs, fingernails and hair, which was modeled after that of VSR Engineering Team Lead Anith Mathai.

"Most other software is not nearly as sophisticated," Mathai said. "They're all mannequin like."

His predictability also sets SANTOS apart, Marler said.

Instead of using a database approach to answer questions, such as how much a 150-pound person can lift, SANTOS allows researchers to use a physics- and math-based approach.

Researchers can use SANTOS to test everything from heart rate and oxygen consumption to muscle fatigue and joint impact.

Karim Abdel-Malek, VSR director and a UI professor of biomedical engineering, helped found the VSR program in 2003 when UI received a large grant from the U.S. Army to aid in the design of military tanks that would reduce time on the assembly line.

Since then, the organization has steadily grown, taking on more contracts and partnerships, Abdel-Malek said.

Researchers have worked with Caterpillar to help mitigate injuries associated with large mining equipment, and with car manufacturers -- including Ford, Chrysler and GM -- to find ways to reduce injuries during the assembly process.

Earlier this year, VSR won a contract with the U.S. Navy that could be worth up to $8.6 million over the next five years.

Researchers are working with the Navy to help reduce the loads soldiers have to wear into combat.

"They want to reduce the load that they carry, but at the same time, give them everything they need without reducing their mobility or agility," Abdel-Malek said. "Basically, instead of using tens of thousands of soldiers and years of research, this research can tell us very quickly the impact of carrying 92 pounds on your back while walking for five miles in Afghanistan."

The pack load project is just one of several VSR is working on for the U.S. military, Marler said.

Researchers also study what's best for entire groups of soldiers.

"If I have this mission, these guys and this equipment, what's going to happen to them?" Marler said. "Who should be carrying what?"

Though SANTOS was designed as a "typical" soldier -- he's of average height and in the 52nd percentile for weight among soldiers, Mathai said -- there are other versions of the soldier as well.

There's the short, stocky SANTOS, the tall, lean version and a version built more like a towering linebacker.

"We've pretty much got them all covered," he said.

Researchers at VSR have written more than 500,000 lines of code for SANTOS.

In another project, Mathai is researching how to design body armor that is effective at covering not only vital organs but also outer extremities.

On his computer, he places the armor pieces on SANTOS and runs him through a series of drills, lifting his arms and throwing a grenade.

The computer then tells Mathai the effectiveness of the armor: Whether SANTOS has a full range of motion and the impact it has on more than 100 individual joints. Mathai even developed a star-rating system for the different types of armor he tests.

Marler said VSR continues to grow and evolve in its sophistication.

Right now, researchers are in beginning another stage of work with the Navy to develop a survivability tool that will involve developing new capabilities at VSR and working with armor manufacturers and Johnson Hopkins University to study the impact of explosions on soldiers.

"One of the things that makes SANTOS unique is that, not only does he provide new capabilities, the software provides a platform expandability and interaction that other researchers can leverage," Marler said. "We can easily partner with other cutting-edge efforts. All of this fosters collaboration."