He may look like he stepped straight out of Second Life, but he isn’t here to kid around. Santos is a computer-generated auto worker who will perform various tasks on a virtual Ford assembly line, showing real-world researchers how those tasks affect his body. The avatar was originally developed for the US Department of Defense at the University of Iowa as part of the Virtual Soldier Research program where he was used to determine the physical strain that soldiers would experience in a variety of situations.

Hmm... auto worker, soldier, university education, muscular, exotic name... perhaps he did just step out of Second Life.

Santos is now the property of SantosHuman Inc., who work in conjunction with the University of Iowa. He is “the culmination of years of study in modeling, multi-body dynamics and robotics,” according to CEO Jay Johnson. The virtual worker has a complete biomechanical musculoskeletal system, programmed to respond to stresses in the same ways a real person’s would. "Our software uses a physics platform," Johnson said. "We can change things and see the effect; that's what predictive dynamics brings to the table." Predictive dynamics combines general rules of human body movement with mathematical models, to provide feedback on fatigue, speed, strength and torque.

At Ford, the idea is that Santos will be brought in before new assembly lines are installed. By running him through various jobs in various potential set ups, the planners can design an operation that maximizes not only employee safety, but also efficiency and build quality.

This is not Ford’s first foray into the world of digital avatars. Just a couple of years ago, they recruited two virtual employees called Jack and Jill. Created using modeling software and motion capture technology, they were designed for the exact same purposes as Santos. Unlike them, however, he can show what the true effects of repetitive tasks will be months or even years down the road.

While Santos isn’t ready to report to work at the Ford plant just yet, Jack better keep an eye on Jill when he does.