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High-Tech Highlight

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2006
Sally B. Patterson

Who does a computer-generated blonde turn to when she wants her hair to, like, really shine? Stephen Marschner, a computer graphics professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He and graduate student Jason Moon have developed an algorithm that can make that graphically rendered blonde hair look much more realistic because it takes into account the way light reflects among the hair shafts, not just from the surface.

They use ray tracing to map patterns of light throughout fair locks and to simulate depths of shimmer and shadow. Their method is far faster than path tracing, which was formerly the only available way to achieve similar effects and which laboriously calculates the path of light from each pixel.

In a cinematic world where the likes of Naomi Watts get graphically transferred to the arms of a big ape, such innovations can be richly rewarded. In fact, a couple of years ago, Marschner shared an Oscar for technical achievement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work in making the skin of Gollum look believably translucent in The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps he’ll achieve even greater renown as the lord of the ringlets.


GLOSSARY
algorithm
A precisely defined series of steps that describes how a computer performs a task.
light
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
surface
1. In optics, one of the exterior faces of an optical element. 2. The process of grinding or generating the face of an optical element.
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