How the Avatar Machine Works

Avatar Machine Hardware
This illustration shows how the tripod attaches to the Avatar Machine's harness.
This illustration shows how the tripod attaches to the Avatar Machine's harness.
HowStuffWorks 2007

Apart from the costume elements of the invention, which were included to give the Avatar Machine the appearance of a video game character, the device includes:

  • A harness that straps to the user's torso
  • Three two-meter long aluminum rods that attach to the user's harness at the lower back and shoulders, forming a tripod
  • A wide-angle pinhole video camera at the end of the tripod, not to be confused with a simple pinhole camera used in photography
  • A head-mounted display (HMD) contained in a helmet
  • A power supply attached to the harness

Owens' wide-angle pinhole video camera was an excellent choice for this type of application. Not only are pinhole video cameras small -- they are often used in covert surveillance operations because they're hard to spot -- but they also have infinite fixed focus with the proper lens. You can't adjust the focus on a fixed-focus camera, but the camera is designed so that all objects beyond a certain point remain in focus no matter how far away they might be.

The wide-angle lens on the camera is necessary to make sure that the user can see enough of him or herself in the frame. Wide-angle lenses have shorter focal lengths than normal lenses. The focal length is the distance between the lens and the charge-coupled device (CCD), a semiconductor image sensor in the camera that creates video images by interpreting the intensity of light coming through the lens.

Here you can see the difference in focal length and field of view between a normal lens and a wide-angle lens.
HowStuffWorks 2007

The shorter focal length allows Owens to set his camera in a fixed position only three feet behind the user. Without the wide-angle lens, he would have had to make the tripod longer to get the same angle of view, making the Avatar Machine more difficult to use.

Owens' head-mounted display is a helmet that contains a monitor. A user wearing the Avatar Machine sees a video image of his or her back. The helmet doesn't have any integrated tracking systems, which means that if the user turns his or her head, the point of view doesn't change. He or she can only change the point of view by moving forward, backward or turning his or her torso in another direction.

The head-mounted display houses a monitor wired directly to the camera.
HowStuffWorks 2007

While the padded suit isn't necessary for the invention to work, it provides a helpful layer of padding for clumsy users. Owens observed that most people took a few minutes to get used to the Avatar Machine's interface before moving around comfortably in it.

In the next section, we'll look at some possible applications for the Avatar Machine.