Many modern animated characters owe their lifelike movements to actors in motion capture (mocap) suits surrounded by cameras, but that cumbersome, expensive process might soon be a thing of the past. Danish startup Rokoko has developed the Smartsuit Pro, a mocap suit that works without wires or cameras, and instead relies on sensors and a Wi-Fi network to record or stream motion to a character in real time.
Currently, the most commonly-used mocap setup will be familiar to anyone who frequents DVD bonus features and behind-the-scenes footage. An actor dons a skintight body suit adorned with silver balls and performs the required actions in a big room, with a suite of cameras capturing the movement of their individual limbs and transposing that onto a digitized "skeleton" of an animated character.
But of course, a system that complex restricts the art form to entertainment juggernauts like The Lord of the Rings and Grand Theft Auto V. With the aim of making mocap more accessible, the Smartsuit Pro takes cameras out of the equation and lets the suit itself capture the data through a series of sensors that directly measure the movements. Previous research has explored similar ideas, albeit by tacking the cameras onto the actors themselves.
"Greater and simplified access to mocap will unlock creative possibilities, increase the quality, and lower the costs of 3D animation in film and games." says Jakob Balslev, Rokoko's CEO and Founder. "Until now, however, the ability for the vast majority of creative teams to leverage this technology has been simply unattainable. The Smartsuit Pro breaks down all the barriers to entry with a simple, intuitive and cost-effective proposition."
The Smartsuit gets its smarts from 19 sensors scattered around the wearer's body, each fitted with a gyrometer, accelerometer and magnometer. Using the data pouring out of each of those components, the system's algorithms can calculate the three-dimensional position of each sensor in relation to each other.
The resulting data can be stored in a "hub" on the back of the suit, or streamed over Wi-Fi to other devices on the network. It's all powered by a small battery with a reported eight-hour life, rechargeable through any USB power bank, and both the battery and hub are designed to be smaller than an iPhone and lightweight, for comfort.
The creators say that the device overcomes many of the challenges of optical motion capture. Cameras can't track what they can't see, so occlusion can ruin scenes where, for example, two characters might be interacting close together. With the new system, up to five people can be simultaneously captured with one router on a network, and the character limit can be increased by adding extra routers. And since the Smartsuit Pro is crunching numbers instead of video files, data is said to be kept relatively small and fast.
Once out of the confines of the suit itself, the data is sent to the included Smartsuit Studio software, where users can record, edit, live-stream and play back their mocaps. From there, it can be exported as an FBX or BVH file, to be further manipulated in other 3D software like Maya, 3ds Max or After Effects. Direct plugins allow it to work with Unity, Unreal Engine and MotionBuilder, and more tech-savvy creators can use the SDK to create plugins for their preferred programs.
The Smartsuit Pro is aimed at high-end movie and game studios looking for a faster, cleaner workflow, as well as mid-range indie teams who might not have had access to motion capture technology before.
"An animator can stand up right at his or her desk and test out a character or do a recording," the creators tell New Atlas. "Instead of going through an expensive and time consuming animation process just to see your thoughts visualized, you can now do that within minutes and therefore make the production much more organic and creative."
Outside of entertainment, the Smartsuit system might also be put to use in physical rehabilitation and training, or more general sports and fitness tracking in the vein of devices like Pivot or Tracky.
At the other end of the gaming equation, players might eventually be able to use it to control their virtual avatar, like the tactile AxonVR suit. The next few releases from Rokoko seem to be pushing that angle, with the company expecting to drop a hand-tracking add-on for the system, the Smartglove, in 2017. Further down the track, Rokoko is planning a sports-jacket-style "full-body joystick," complete with wireless foot-sensors, at an anticipated price point of under US$500.
For now, Rokoko is focusing on the Smartsuit Pro, which it plans to start shipping in February 2017. Prices begin at $2,245, and the company is currently taking pre-orders.
The concept is demonstrated in the video below.