|Hawking radiation and the “black hole firewall” paradox (Scientific American)|
But there's another resonance with Faster than Night that we didn't anticipate. Hawking, like us, uses facial-capture technology.
Our first blog post described the head-mounted camera that will track every movement of actor Pascal Langdale's mouth, cheek, eye and brow, and pass the data to a computer to animate his astronaut avatar.
Stephen Hawking's "headcam" is a tiny infrared sensor mounted on the corner of his eyeglasses, but it is infinitely more powerful than its size suggests.
As a result of the motor neuron disease that has wasted his body, only the shortest neural pathways, such as that between his brain and his cheek muscle, are still under his precise control. The infrared sensor on his glasses detects changes in light as he twitches his cheek, and this almost indiscernible bit of motion-capture is his sole means to control everything he does on his computer.
A new documentary released last year, titled simply Hawking, reveals the race against time to keep his communications technology ahead of the progression of his disease.
About 20 minutes in, Jonathan Wood, Stephen's graduate assistant, explains, "Stephen's speed of communication has very gradually slowed down. A few years ago, he was still able to use his hand-switch and able to communicate by clicking this switch on his wheelchair. When he wasn't able to do that anymore, we switched over to a switch that he'd mounted on his cheek. But with him slowing down with that, we've approached his sponsors, so they've been looking into facial recognition."
An Intel technician follows: "This is a high-speed camera which will allow us to see verifying details on the facial expressions, and this will help us to improve the rate of your speech and input."
Then Stephen Hawking: "I have had to learn to live with my slow rate of communication. I can only write by flinching my cheek muscle to move the cursor on my computer. One day I fear this muscle will fail. But I would like to be able to speak more quickly.... I am hoping this current generation of software experts can harness what little movement I have left in my face, and turn it into faster communication."
This intriguing and dramatic arms race (face race?) has Intel's best and brightest looking for ever more sensitive sensors and new techniques to give the physicist better ways to control his computer.
|Cathy Hutchinson drinks from a bottle using the DLR robotic arm (Photos: Nature)|
Last month's issue of National Geographic described similar explorations at Brown University, where Cathy Hutchinson maneuvered a neurally-controlled robot hand to drink a cinnamon latte.
Next stop: hoisting a brewski with the Canadarm?
You think we're joking, but the Hawking documentary ends with a delightful sequence in which Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic suggests that the best astronaut might be a man whose mind has never been bound by the gravity that holds his body:
"I just couldn't think of anybody in the world that we'd rather send to space than Stephen Hawking. And, you know, we haven't offered anybody a free ticket, but it was the one person in the world that we felt, 'We'd love to invite you to space.' And it was incredible when he accepted. I went up and saw him that day, and he told me to hurry up and get the spaceship built because he wasn't going to live forever. Hopefully next year, we'll take him up. I think that he feels that if he goes into space personally, he can lead the way."