UI Shows Off Its Virtual Human

Thursday, January 25, 2007

By Eric Rodriguez
The Daily Iowan

UI graduate student Amos Patrick was in the middle of explaining the joint structure of the Santos project when his colleague, Steven Beck, the research and development projects manager for the Virtual Soldier Research Program, ran up on the stage.

"Wait, I forgot something," Beck said as he started to throw T-shirts into the packed crowd.

Beck and the members of his team were excited about Santos, a virtual human that performs physical tasks in a real-world environment. The technology is being used for such entities as Honda, the United States Council for Automotive Research, Caterpillar Inc., and the U.S. Army.

The Virtual Soldier Research Program has brought $13 million to the university, new jobs to Iowa, and it has received an undisclosed amount of funding from the United States Council for Automotive Research to use Santos to find out how to more effectively assemble cars.

Santos works by displaying qualities that are eerily similar to those of a human being. For example, Santos had been used by the U.S. Army to find out how long it would take for a soldier to run, become fatigued, and chew on caffeinated gum.

Santos is able to do this because it can simulate human physiological conditions and vital signs such as a heartbeat. It is also being developed to exhibit strength, reactions to accurate environments, and physical challenges, among other tasks.

"We're trying to make him a real person," Patrick said.

And one step to get Santos closer to that goal is to create a physically tangible, although artificial, environment - one that includes real time, gravitational forces, and objects blocking a given path.

The presentation showed footage of Santos performing some of those tasks by climbing up the side of a Caterpillar crane and carrying a backpack full of military supplies. It also could become physically fatigued by lifting weight.

What may become even more fascinating than the tasks Santos can perform is the possibility that one day it may be available to the public.

UI Professor Karim Abdel-Malek, the director of the Virtual Soldier Research Program, foresees that one day, Santos will be able to test drive a car, teach people how to do home repairs, or even get advice about a bad date they had the night before.

"Ten years from today, you'll pick up your computer, and it could be with Santos" in it, Abdel-Malek said.

The group decided to hold its first public lecture because, with its rapid growth, it needed more members to help with the task of development.

"The best way for us to do that is to get the word out on campus and other campuses," Beck said. "We need help; if you want to work with us, we want to work with you."


A virtual human capable of exhibiting physiological qualities in a physics-based environment to predict the limits of the human body on machines and physically active tasks.

What Santos can do:

  • Climb up a crane
  • Run and become fatigued
  • Operate machinery

What Santos may be able to do in the future:

  • Test drive a virtual car for a consumer
  • Teach eople how to fix their home
  • Give people advice on relationships

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