Is Mo-Cap Com­ing to Your Desk­top?

New tech­nolo­gies like the Ocu­lus Rift and Con­trol VR are pos­si­bly the break­through needed to pop­u­lar­ize use of the tech­nol­ogy. By Ellen Wolff.

Animation Magazine - - Visual Effects -

When it first be­came ev­i­dent that dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy would en­able animators to cap­ture hu­man mo­tion, some artists de­cried the process as “the devil’s ro­to­scope.” That com­plaint seems quaint now, given the so­phis­ti­cated mo-capped Gol­lum in The Lord of the Rings tril­ogy and Cae­sar in the Planet of the Apes fran­chises. High-end cap­ture tech­nol­ogy at stu­dios like Weta Dig­i­tal — com­bined with top-notch animators and performers like Andy Serkis — have pro­duced as­ton­ish­ing big-screen char­ac­ters.

The open ques­tion is when af­ford­able mo­tion-cap­ture tools will make their way to desk­tops so that in­die animators can ex­plore ges­tu­ral an­i­ma­tion them­selves. Ea­ger to have this ca­pa­bil­ity, some animators have hacked game tech­nol­ogy like Mi­crosoft’s Kinect to cre­ate home-brewed mo­tion cap­ture, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess.

But at the 2014 E3 con­ven­tion in Los An­ge­les, there were signs that a new mo­tion-cap­ture sys­tem might be us­able out of the box.

A Los An­ge­les startup called Con­trol VR demon­strated an in­er­tial mo­tion-cap­ture rig that animators can slip over their shoul­ders and hands to cap­ture hu­man move­ments with fidelity — right down to a vir­tual char­ac­ter’s fin­ger­tips. Ex­pected to sell for $600 when it be­gins ship­ping this fall through Ama­zon, the Con­trol VR devel­op­ment kit prom­ises to sup­port a va­ri­ety of PC ap­pli­ca­tions. Users will pre­sum­ably be able to use it with pop­u­lar pro­grams like Au­todesk’s Maya, Mo­tionBuilder and 3ds Max.

Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, this po­ten­tial boon for animators was blown by in the vir­tual re­al­ity whirl­wind that swept through E3. The head-mounted VR dis­play Ocu­lus Rift, whose de­vel­oper was re­cently bought by Face­book for $2 bil­lion, grabbed lots of the air.

‘Our school had one op­ti­cal mo­tion-cap­ture

sys­tem that cost as much as four stu­dents’

recorded mo-cap in my dorm room!’

But Con­trol VR was savvy enough to ride those tail­winds — demon­strat­ing how its wear­able tech­nol­ogy could con­trol a player’s avatar as it was viewed through the Rift head­set.

Need­ing a Demo

And that’s where CG an­i­ma­tor Alex Knoll en­tered the scene. “Con­trol VR needed a playable game to get at­ten­tion at E3,” says Knoll, who had spent the pre­vi­ous seven years

The demo was so effective that Con­trol VR hired Knoll to re­main at the com­pany and de­velop more con­tent.

“My re­spon­si­bil­ity is to make the soft­ware side of things us­able by de­vel­op­ers, stu­dents, and univer­sity and an­i­ma­tion ap­pli­ca­tions,” he says. “I’m pri­mar­ily a Maya user, but for the most part, it seems like our users will han­dle their an­i­ma­tion in Mo­tionBuilder and then port it to Maya or Sof­tim­age or 3ds Max. But if some­one wanted to do mo­tion cap­ture within

con­tin­ued from page 40 Maya, they cer­tainly can.”

Knoll, who got his bach­e­lor’s de­gree in com­puter an­i­ma­tion from the Sa­van­nah Col­lege of Art and De­sign, notes that many animators’ ex­pe­ri­ence with mo­tion cap­ture has been costly at best and time-con­sum­ing at worst.

“Our school had one op­ti­cal mo­tion-cap­ture sys­tem that cost as much as four stu­dents’ tu­itions. So I see this new glove sys­tem as some­thing that just about any stu­dent could af­ford. With this sys­tem I could have recorded mo-cap in my dorm room!” he says with a laugh. “And the in­for­ma­tion you re­ceive from it is cleaner than what you get from op­ti­cal track­ing. With op­ti­cal, you can’t track fingers. Animators have to hand-track a char­ac­ter’s fingers.”

Re­duc­ing the Cost

The time it takes for animators to clean up op­ti­cal mo­tion-cap­ture data is a sig­nif­i­cant pro­duc­tion cost, says Con­trol VR’s Bran­don Laatsch, who hired Knoll. Laatsch went to USC film school and un­der­stands how mo­tion cap­ture is typ­i­cally done for most pro­duc­tions.

“The cost in L.A. to rent a mo­tion-cap­ture stage and clean up op­ti­cal mo­tion-cap­ture data is cost-pro­hib­i­tive for any­one but the top stu­dios,” he says. Laatsch says tech­nol­ogy is de­moc­ra­tiz­ing mo­tion cap­ture. “Con­trol VR was de­signed to have an ‘open palm’ — the idea be­ing that you can still type on a key­board and use a mouse while wear­ing it. It’s a third in­put de­vice to a com­puter, so that an an­i­ma­tor could be work­ing in Mo­tionBuilder, typ­ing on the com­puter and us­ing a mouse. Then they could hit record and im­me­di­ately scoot their chair back, do the mo­tion that they need, then hit stop and re­view it. If it’s not cor­rect, they could hit record again. Peo­ple will have a full six de­grees of free­dom track­ing down to their fin­ger­tips,” he says. “Even in its in­fancy, this sys­tem has been steady. You can hold your hand still and it won’t jit­ter around.”

There’s a long pedi­gree be­hind th­ese de­vel­op­ments. Con­trol VR is a joint ven­ture between Syn­er­tial and In­ter­tial Labs, which have a his­tory of de­vel­op­ing high-end mo­tion-cap­ture sys­tems. But this fledg­ling ven­ture took the Kick­starter route, set­ting a goal of rais­ing $250,000 to man­u­fac­ture its in­au­gu­ral prod­uct. They passed that goal within a few days, and even­tu­ally raised more than $440,000.

Cost-effective for Indies, Stu­dios

The ob­vi­ous tar­get au­di­ence for this tech­nol­ogy may be in­die animators, but Knoll and Laatsch also watched peo­ple from DreamWorks check­ing out Con­trol VR dur­ing pre­sen­ta­tions at E3. “It’s a very en­tic­ing idea to have mo­tion cap­ture in the hands of ev­ery an­i­ma­tor in your stu­dio at their desks,” says Laatsch. “No­body has yet been able to have a mo­tion-cap­ture suit that they could use ev­ery sin­gle day.”

By this year’s end, animators will see if this vi­sion is a prac­ti­cal one. The buzz about us­ing Con­trol VR to ma­nip­u­late avatars in VR games will un­doubt­edly con­tinue, es­pe­cially if Ocu­lus Rift suc­ceeds. But the work­man­like pos­si­bil­i­ties for mo­tion-cap­ture on your desk­top could be part of the wave of dig­i­tal changes sweep­ing the pro­duc­tion in­dus­try.

“We live in a time when it’s dif­fi­cult to be mar­ried to one bit of soft­ware,” says Laatsch. “We have to be pre­pared to adapt to new tech­nolo­gies and em­brace new ways. As the play­ing field gets lev­eled, that’s go­ing to be eas­ier to do.”

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