Monday, January 06, 2014

Motion Capture for Home Use

I'm no expert when it comes to motion capture, but I'm aware of some of the technical challenges.  In the past, body suits with potentiometers at the joints sent angle information to rigged characters.  Later, multiple cameras were able to triangulate reference points pasted onto body suits to figure out where the points were in 3D space.  Facial capture usually meant wearing headgear with an attached camera pointed at the performer's face, which had dots drawn on it for reference points.

In each case, specialized hardware was necessary and somebody had to write software to translate the raw data into usable positions or angles that could drive a character.

All in all, not something the average person could do at home.

Technology has a habit of taking things that were once difficult and expensive and making them simple for anyone to use.  It's now happening to motion capture.

What you're seeing here is a home motion capture system to work with a webcam and allow a person to drive an animation-style character in real time.  I can't tell if the headphones are part of the necessary hardware or just headphones, but in any case, the system couldn't be much simpler for an average user.  Admittedly, it isn't perfect and the lip synch is probably the weakest part, but like all applications, it will improve in future versions.

This is being built by a team of Romanian software developers and they're raising money on Indiegogo.  The most basic package can be had for $5 U.S. and they've already reached their financial goal.

Technology has put a lot of people out of business and reduced the viability of various fields.  Good luck finding a typesetter and there are fewer graphic designers than there once were now that software has enabled anybody to do it.  True, a good designer brings experience and taste to a project that an amateur will not, but the tools are in reach for anyone who wants them.  And with templates available for blogs, websites, documents and presentations, the bread and butter work that used to cover a graphic designer's overhead has pretty much vanished.

I'm wondering if we're not witnessing something very similar happening to the role of the animator and possibly the role of the storyboard artist as well.

Motion capture isn't animation, but it can look like animation.  The general audience cares less about technique than about being entertained.  Knowing how to act for motion capture can be learned, the same way that comedians in silent films or mimes developed styles of movement that met their needs.  While undoubtedly there will be a lot of junk produced, the democratization of the tools will result in motion captured films that attempt to resemble animation from the major studios.

There's an indie film world where live action features are sometimes made for as little as $100,000.  The evolution of motion capture tools like FaceRig may make "animated" features possible at the same budget level.  Animators would not be necessary.

Possibly neither would storyboard artists.  The board exists to nail down the presentation of the visuals, but many live action directors don't use them.  If you can direct your characters in real time, boards are not as necessary.  In addition, once the performance exists in the virtual 3D world, you're free to direct the film after the performances are captured by placing the camera and deciding when to cut.  It will be easier than ever for people who know how to entertain an audience and communicate a story visually to create a film inexpensively.

Will this affect the animation industry as we know it or is it just a toy?  I don't know.  But I am amazed at how far motion capture has come technologically, when $5 can buy you a facial capture system and a bunch of avatars.  After seeing what happened to record companies and newspapers when technology upended them, the one thing I know is that we should not be complacent.


A Romanian said...

Minor typo: a team of romanian developers (not rumanian)

Mark Mayerson said...

Corrected. Thanks.

Emergent Animation said...

It blurs the line between animation, puppeteering, and live-performance, but it's still an art-form. I wouldn't get too hung on terminology.