Every day at Soul Machines™ is about breaking new ground in the AI fast lane. And this particular day would be no different. Being briefed to create an autonomous animal character that could be used across a diverse range of applications from digital companion to gaming sidekick, that is appealing and cute but also one that people would easily relate to, is no easy task.

Stepping up to the challenge, Goran – 3D artist at Soul Machines™ – plunged straight in.  But which animal?  Well, the one thing people connect with are the eyes and owls are known for their big, bright watchful eyes.

Why an Owl?

Across history and mythology people have viewed owls with fascination and awe whether as Hedwig, Harry Potter’s trustful companion, as Greek Goddess Athene’s favourite creature or with the Kwakiutl of North America who believe owls are the souls of people.

 The Owl from Auckland Museum preparing for its first 3D scan. This owl is a Morepork: a small, dark-brown, forest-dwelling owl known for its distinctive 'morepork' call. Native to New Zealand The Owl from Auckland Museum preparing for its first 3D scan. This owl is a Morepork: a small, dark-brown, forest-dwelling owl known for its distinctive ‘morepork’ call. Native to New Zealand

With their beguiling gaze, solemn presence and dexterity as silent hunters by virtue of their unique feathers; owls carry great resonance with humans around the world.  As a symbol of wisdom and mystery they hold an almost hypnotic attraction for us.

Goran immersed himself in the subject matter. Researching relentlessly he collected a range of references from anatomy to habitat to ensure his owl would be as accurate as possible. Sifting through piles of imagery the team settled on a form that was rounded in shape with big eyes and fluffy feathers. Mark Sagar – CEO of Soul Machines™ – was sold on the idea. It had the appeal needed.

Goran set to work producing initial sketches that led to the first stages of building-up a model. But in order to truly capture the owl precisely a real-life specimen was required.

We get better clarity from proper specimens presented in a beautiful way which gives us the edge, pushing for the final 10% to get that extra realism.”  Goran,  3D Artist – Soul Machines™

Enter Auckland Museum.

In a unique collaboration between Soul Machines™ and Auckland Museum, a selection of taxidermied Morepork were brought to the Lab for Animate Technologies where these specimens were light captured in Soul Machines™ specifically created 3D scanner.

“Seeing it from a completely different perspective is amazing.”
Ruby Moore,  Collections Manager for Entomology & Land Vertebrates – Auckland Museum

These highly-valued exhibits were handled by the Natural Sciences Collections Managers who fully embraced the detailed process of image capture and the opportunities this presents for future collaborations.

“Artificial Intelligence is quite hot at the moment and it’s the next big thing. And so it’s great to see how our collections can be used to help companies such as this.”
Dhahara Ranatunga, Collections Manager, Natural Sciences – Auckland Museum

Armed with this new information Goran is now bringing the owl to life by producing a selection of anatomical changes. He’s extracting texture, re-building elements and adding super-realistic surface details to existing models with special focus on the feathers in order to capture the real-life nuances that cannot be seen from standard photographs.  One detail Goran is currently exploring is the owl’s distinctive movement. Since their eyes are fixed forward, the characteristic signature of bobbing its neck to verify depth perception to accurately fix on its prey will be translated to the final puppet articulation.  This will give a person the sense s/he’s communicating with an actual owl.

Once this accuracy has been reached then reality takes a side-step into make-believe as this unique little bird will be given the ability to talk! The beak will replicate that of a person’s mouth as the owl communicates with users in real time, thus creating a dynamic connection between this autonomous character and the people who interact with it.

So step aside Dr Dolittle, soon you won’t be the only person who can talk to animals!