`This Is Joe Blow Dry, Live From Mars'

EVANS & SUTHERLAND COMputer Corp. has lowered the cost of sending your local newscaster to, say, the bottom of the ocean. Its system inserts real people into virtual settings on live TV. Unlike simpler systems that create only backdrops, this one immerses the person inside the computer-generated scene, with virtual objects appearing in both the foreground and background. An overhead camera tracks the person's movements, calculating which objects should be in front and which behind.

The newscaster, game-show host, or corporate trainer stands in front of a blue-matte screen. The blue is subtracted from the image and replaced with a computer-generated scene. Since it's mainly for live TV, the merging of real and pretend must be nearly instantaneous. Each new frame is composed in under 1/30th of a second, the time between frames in television.

Such high-end systems can cost $500,000 and up. Salt Lake City-based E&S says it cut the price by assembling all the components itself and putting its graphics processor into a Windows NT workstation instead of a costlier Unix-based machine. The MindSet 100 Virtual Set starts at $99,500.

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