Michigan Mo-Cap

The list of Michigan development talent and resources continues to grow.

Last night, the first 2007 chapter meeting of the Southern Michigan IGDA (International Game Developers Association) was held, and I was scheduled to miss it due to a prior (and priority) commitment. However, unforeseen circumstances caused the other event to be postponed, so at the last hour I was informed that I would be able to attend this meeting after all. It worked out quite well.

I had been disappointed by the time conflict because this meeting was being held at a brand new, state of the art, motion capture studio located in Detroit, Michigan. The meeting was presented in conjunction with SEMAFX, the Southeast Michigan ACM SIGGRAPH Professional Chapter, which has a mission similar to that of our IGDA chapter, to advance digital arts (as opposed to specifically game development) in this area.

The location was Dangerous Moves, a.k.a., Critical Moves [warning: loud link content], a motion capture studio located within Detroit proper. My arrival was slightly late due to the inability of MapQuest to account for an evening traffic jam on I-696, but fortunately, the presentation had not begun yet. The turnout seemed to be pretty good, probably around 50 attendees, and a poll early in the gathering suggested that more than half were game developers (including aspiring game developers).

When we got started, we were cautioned not to touch any of the rigging while taking our seats because the cameras were very precisely calibrated. (As one technician told us later, “If a mouse farts in here, we have to recalibrate.“) The movable rigging, like a scaffold, supported 46 specially placed cameras that, we were informed, were accurate to within the thickness of a sheet of paper. This is precise enough that it can be (and has been) used to capture facial expressions during a performance. It was suggested that the recalibration process would take around 45 minutes to complete.

The stage itself, as configured for our visit (to accommodate a room half full of chairs), was about the size of a standard conference room, but could be expanded to at least four times that size. Light in the room was low, to avoid reflections, and the stage was lit primarily with many deep red LED light clusters. It was explained that the visible light was for our (human) benefit, but that these lights also transmitted infrared light, which is the frequency range captured by the cameras, after bouncing off of reflective “ball” markers.

When the heart of the presentation began, a lovely performer dressed primarily in black, but covered with a few dozen reflectors, walked onto the stage. The software display, thoughtfully projected on a screen for us, showed a series of dots on black. As a technician took the performer through her range of motion moves, the dots moved around the 3D space in real time. It was neat, but they were only dots

As we watched, the points, or rather, the connections among them, were mapped to lines, and soon, there was a colorful stick figure prancing around the screen along with the performer. Then a humanoid model (i.e., a 3D stick figure) was loaded and taken through the original range of motion capture, following by a stock model of a typical female video game fighter character doing the same. It started getting really interesting when this model then started performing the same movements throughout the 3d space at the same time as the woman on stage. We watched a preliminary marketing video showing off this ability, and as entertaining as that was, a linear (edited) medium simply could not fully convey that it was done in real time.

For the final part of the stage show, a little wooden triangle with reflective markers was placed on stage, along with the performer. While the women of stage and screen continued to dance in unison, a technician was doing something in the software. Ultimately, the wooden triangle became a makeshift quasi-virtual camera, and the 3D images were rendered from the perspective of this “camera”. A kid in the audience, maybe 12 years old or so, was encouraged to try it, so he walked on stage and “filmed” a sequence in his impromptu directorial debut. (He was not comfortable telling an adult woman what to do, though.) Our hosts captured the session and are rendering the results to a custom DVD for him. Very cool.

The whole studio is actually multipurpose. It is a large sound stage with full stage rigging (including catwalks), and in addition to the motion capture area, there is also a room prepared for green screening, complete with rounded corners, evidently to avoid seams and abrupt changes in lighting. I overheard somebody mention that local Rock and Rock Hall of Fame inductee, Bob Seger, had used the studio to set the stage arrangement for his current Face the Promise tour.

The IGDA gave away some door prizes, and everybody spent quite a while at Critical Moves talking about all kinds of groovy things, until many of us retired to the SEMAFX “afterglow” gathering at a bar with live music just down the street. The band asked that we spread the word about them, which leads me to…

Fundamental rule of marketing: If you want people to spread the word about you, you must make sure that you tell them who you are.

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