Camporesi controls the movements of an animated avatar on a large 'power wall' 3D screen in real time.

In a dark room lit only by the razor-thin beams of infrared cameras, University of California at Merced graduate student Carlo Camporesi spends most days—and many nights—in the company of avatars.

This isn’t the next big sci-fi movie in the making, or the latest Nintendo Wii video game. Camporesi is part of a research team working to solve a very real problem: how to overcome an expected shortage of physical therapists who will work with aging baby boomers.

UC Merced received a $75,000 grant through the UC system for five graduate students to begin creating a software program this year that uses avatars to provide physical therapy to the elderly.

Professors say the project has the potential to improve the health of thousands of people. It offers a blueprint for future projects that college administrators hope will bolster UC Merced’s reputation as a research institution and help it compete better for its share of the dwindling supply of federal research dollars.

There isn’t much budget talk in the cramped room where Camporesi works, immersed in a world that teeters between fantasy and reality. Camporesi positions himself in front of a 3D, floor-to-ceiling projection screen—researchers call it a “power wall”—wearing sensors so the infrared cameras can track his every movement.

On the screen, an avatar stands in a virtual-reality kitchen. Each time Camporesi moves, so does the avatar. He’s training the avatars to mimic people so perfectly that, on a computer or TV screen, they could be mistaken as human.

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