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.
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.”