The six beings stand in variations of the classic pose of a da Vinci drawing, unclothed, feet planted firmly, arms straight and floating to the side. There are both genders and various ethnicities and builds. Each figure is yours for $995.
Sooner or later, everything turns up in the electronic marketplace. For example: These highly detailed laser scans of six very real people who were recruited by a modeling agency for the Digital Human Catalog.
You can check them out at www.paraform.com/ entertainment/entertainment_DHP.html. Truth be told, they're a bit unnerving at first glance. You can't escape the feeling they're cloned beings awaiting painful emergence from some science-fiction birth pod.
But to people in the ever-growing industry of digital simulation, they're simply raw material for the artificial reality that increasingly figures in moviemaking, advertising, World Wide Web site and product design, and art. Computers may seem capable of spinning believable images out of thin air, but in fact they must work with detailed scans that allow them to understand objects' shapes and textures, appearances and patterns of movement.
With little publicity, there's been a market in these scans for years. Go to www.viewpoint.com, home of Viewpoint Digital Inc., and you can find for sale thousands of scans of objects, such as alarm clocks, airport towers and motorcycles.
The Digital Human Catalog is the work of Paraform Inc., a two-year-old company that wants to show off the capabilities of its newly released scanning-processing software, Paraform 1.0. And, its people say, to bring in a little money -- the Santa Clara, Calif., company has backing from Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, but it never hurts to begin pulling its own weight.
"Modeling the human body has historically been one of the most challenging domains in computer-generated imaging," said Brian Kissel, Paraform's chief executive. By using technology that its chief technology officer, Venkat Krishnamurthy, worked on at Stanford University, Paraform is trying to set a new standard in that field.
It's already had a workout in test form, helping to create the on-screen scares in the movie "Lake Placid," released last month.
To create the catalogue, six models stood inside a device called a whole body scanner, in which four laser-imaging systems scanned them from head to toe in 17-second intervals. (The models, by the way, signed away rights to their digital likenesses in return for up-front payments.)
Traditionally, a scan produces a "wire frame" image of the object, expressing its contours as tiny geometric forms that a computer can manipulate. Paraform goes a step further by massaging the scan data and creating a more sophisticated mathematical representation of a surface.
For now, movie theaters are perhaps the best-known showcases for simulation technology. The new "Star Wars" film, "The Phantom Menace," with its computer-generated battle droids and aliens, has shown again that Hollywood can create entire characters from simulation.
So what's the next step? For years, Hollywood pundits have been talking about simulation bringing back stars of classic films -- creating an "African Queen II," for example, in which Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn wed and offer tourist cruises on a replacement steamboat.
Jim Morris, president of Lucas Digital Ltd., argues that although the point has been reached where it's possible to create believable artificial humans on a movie screen, audiences won't be interested. To create a new and likable human character, it takes a real-life human acting on camera, he believes.
So, his firm is focusing on creating characters "that you can't cast a human for," such as those many "Star Wars" creatures. But he does see a return to the old human stars as a possibility.
You don't need to think too hard to come up with much more than that, and not just in entertainment. Applications can range from the banal -- who knows but that one day scans may become a common way for tailors to take body measurements -- to the theological.
Could it become common for people to acquire scans of themselves, which would act as their avatars in cyberspace? Today there are places where people can designate simple animations to represent them; imagine if they really looked and seemed like their masters?
Now drop in artificial intelligence. Before they die people might be scanned, so that on a computer screen they could live on, interacting with loved ones with characteristic looks and gestures.
It's fun to speculate about these things; but the one thing you learn in the technology world is that people never put new capabilities to use in quite the way imagined. This one, no doubt, will be no different.
John Burgess's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org