In the creation of the film Avatar, director James Cameron invented a system called Simul-cam. It allowed him to see the video output of the cameras, in real time, but with the human actors digitally altered to look like the alien creatures whom they were playing. The system also negated the need for a huge amount of animation – every performance was captured in all its blue-skinned, pointy-eared majesty as it happened, so it didn’t need to be created from scratch on a computer. Now, researchers from the University of Abertay Dundee have built on the techniques pioneered by Simul-cam to create a new system, that lets users act as their own cameraperson within a 3D environment.

Users of the Motus system hold two Sixense electromagnetic motion-sensitive controllers (like the Wii controllers), and see their environment through a virtual camera – just like the environments of existing video games and animations are already seen. In this system, however, they can look around their virtual world simply by moving one of the controllers, as if it were a camcorder. While it’s been possible to do this in first-person video games for years, the Abertay system does so in a much more lifelike, organic fashion, and can be applied to any 3D computer model.

Motus users can advance through their environment, pan left and right, tilt up and down, zoom, and adjust their virtual iris and depth of field. The camera can be “hand held,” for a Blair Witch-like effect, or mounted on a virtual tripod or dolly, for a steadier, more professional look. The scale of the camera can also be changed on the fly, so you could start by walking through a room, then in one continuous shot proceed to squeeze through the holes in a block of Swiss cheese.

There are several possible uses for the technology, besides film-making. “Within games, watching and sharing replays of the action is hugely popular,” said project associate Erin Michno. “What our development allows is replays to be edited exactly as if they were a film, zooming in, panning the camera, quickly and easily creating a whole movie based on your gaming. For online games enthusiasts, that would dramatically change what’s possible.”

“In the classroom and lecture theater, having this level of control for such a small price would allow some things which just aren’t possible – performing virtual operations live on screen, flying through the inside of an engine – in any school and any university.”

A commercial version of the system will be manufactured by gaming hardware company Razer, and should work on any home PC. It is expected to be available for purchase as of early next year, for under £100 (US$161 at time of publication).

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