Sharon Schatz interviews Brian Nilles on the newVicon 8 motion capture system and the future of the industry.
Quick quiz ...What do the following have in common: walking droids, fighting Gungans, and 1500 perishing digital characters on a sinking ship carrying Leonardo DiCaprio? If you said, "Their movements came to life with the use of motion-capture provided by Vicon Motion Systems," you are correct! Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and Titanic are only two of the high profile projects that this company's motion-capture systems made possible. Vicon Motion Systems is a subsidiary of Oxford Metrics, Ltd., a company that provides motion-capture technology to the medical, sports performance and entertainment markets. Oxford Metrics was founded in 1984 in Oxford, England. Originally, the company focused on the medical market for gait analysis of children prior to surgery or treatment for cerebral palsy. The company entered the market of motion-capture for animation in the mid-'90s. But it was only two years ago that Vicon Motion Systems introduced its most highly acclaimed product, the Vicon 8, an optical motion-capture system which has been used in major motion pictures, hundreds of computer games, commercials, music videos and television.
Brian Nilles is the CEO of Vicon Motion Systems' U.S. office, managing the company's sales and marketing efforts for North and South America. Brian joined the company in 1997 as a product market manager and spearheaded Vicon's expansion into the entertainment market. Between his work in the office and studio, Brian took time out to talk about the advances in motion-capture. Sharon Schatz: What is different about motion-capture now as compared to two years ago? Brian Nilles: A whole bunch of different things. If you're talking about Vicon systems, about a year and a half ago we launched a new hardware platform called Vicon 8 and that was the first optical motion-capture system that was designed from the ground up for animators. You probably know that optical technology has its roots in biomechanics. We've been in business doing that for about sixteen years. That's great for the work that is done for biomechanics, but the solutions that we provided for those guys were outdated compared to what the animators wanted to do. So, we produced a brand new hardware and software platform that removed some of the limitations that the older technology held over the animators. Things like [using] up to 24 cameras. For the Vicon 8 system, a single datastation can run up to 24 cameras. That means that you can have much greater capture volumes and greater numbers of characters simultaneously captured. We have customers who are routinely doing five characters simultaneously and in truth, we can link datastations together so we can go beyond 24 cameras -- up to 48 without much trouble.
Earlier optical systems were limited to only a few minutes per capture. The Vicon 8 system can capture for up to 24 hours. That seems like a lot. It's a really big way of saying that we can capture for any duration and as long as we have enough storage waiting on the other end, we can just siphon it off as quickly as possible. We have several customers who are doing long facial captures and...the requirement doesn't seem to be as prevalent for full-body stuff, as it does for facial. But we did some tests for several movies where they wanted to let some high-paid talent kind of run off at the mouth for several hours. The idea is not having your motion-capture equipment slow you down. And we have some other cool things like SMPTE timecode support and a genlock facility, so that we can integrate with other studio equipment. With integrated movie capture we can get a color video reference of the shoot and also record that in MPEG format. We can burn a frame count on it and timecode and niceties like that. That just makes it much easier for people to deal with the data after the shoot.
Probably the most important [difference from two years ago] is real-time. We launched that at SIGGRAPH this past year. We can now produce character animation from the Vicon 8 hardware platform in real-time. That's significant because traditionally, magnetic technology was the only one that could do that.
SS: What are some of the recent projects Vicon has done using these newer innovations? BN: Our customer, Industrial Light & Magic has a 20-camera Vicon 8 system. They worked on Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and The Mummy. They've also done some recent commercial work. I don't know if you've seen the new Rhythms DSL commercial. Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles by Foundation Imaging. Other TV work would be work done by Computed Animation Technology (CAT). That's a company in Dallas that produced a Fox Halloween special called Night of the Headless Horseman. They actually collaborated with LocoMotion Studios to do some horse capture in a Medieval Times [dinner theater] arena, so they combined their Vicon 8's to produce an 18-camera system.
Other projects include a bunch of music videos from Digital Domain and House of Moves, like Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson's What's It Gonna Be? A brand new one by Will Smith called Willennium by Industrial Light & Magic. Backstreet Boys' Larger Than Life by Centropolis, Metrolight and House of Moves.
Probably the greatest number of productions done with the Vicon system falls into computer games. I'll mention a couple of the top games that are coming out right now. NFL 2K and NBA 2K by Sega/Visual Concepts and House of Moves. Quake III Arena by Activision, id software and House of Moves. NBA Inside Drive 2000 by Microsoft, High Voltage and House of Moves. NFL Fever 2000 from Microsoft and House of Moves. SS: What are the next great developments that Vicon or the industry in general is moving toward? BN: Well, real-time has opened up a number of different opportunities within the entertainment industry, primarily TV and live broadcast. Beyond real-time, we are working on several different R&D (research and development) projects. One of them is markerless tracking. The technology of Vicon 8 places reflective markers on the actor. Being able to do away with those would allow for motion-capture equipment to reside alongside film equipment and that would be a major boon. So, we've been working on that for actually a couple years, but it's now coming to some very, very cool results. We have some new hardware technology coming out that has to do with improving the resolution that we can capture. I'll leave that vague. We've got a product release coming up in April. Beyond that, we've also got some R&D that's looking at redefining motion-capture in its entirety using some image-based technology to produce the same sort of thing that we want from motion-capture, but more elegantly and with more versatility. SS: What are the differences between optical and magnetic motion-capture and how does one or the other benefit the different types of projects that you do?
BN: The place for magnetic technology has typically been for people who are looking for entry-level pricing or who demand real-time. And that's in the past. Magnetic systems for a single character -- I think it's in the $60,000 range. As soon as you add another character, you know, two characters simultaneously, you have to add another suit and that becomes $90,000 or $100,000, something like that. Compared to the optical technology, that probably would be regarded as entry-level. But now with the production of Vicon 8 real-time, there's less of an argument to go for magnetic. The difference in the output has to do with the accuracy of the capture. We can find a marker's position in a full-body capture situation down to about plus or minus two millimeters. And the magnetic people are in order of magnitude outside that. The capture volume that we can capture in or the area that the actors can move around in and be captured is significantly different from magnetic. We can produce capture volumes in the 30 and 40 foot range, where magnetic can't. The magnetic systems that I've seen, they have two units on either side of the volume that are responsible for measuring the magnetic field. The stages are not more than ten or twelve feet in diameter in the active area to be captured. Magnetic actually requires a special stage because if there is metal in the area, it can distort the capture. They often use wooden stages. With Vicon optical, we can go in anywhere for the work. There are a whole bunch of other subtle differences. The Vicon 8 system can be used for facial-capture as well, and a magnetic system can't. But, mostly, it has to do with accuracy, the result in animation, and the fact that we can do real-time now is going to make it more difficult for the guys in magnetic.
SS: How has motion-capture impacted the volume of character animation that is being produced for television, games and film? BN: I don't think anybody would argue that it's only gone up. The whole reason we're in business is because we can produce very realistic motion, capture it from an actor, and save money and time for people who are implementing such digital animation in their productions, whether it's film, TV, games, etc. One of our quests over the last few years of development has been to reduce the pipeline from the capture session into the animation package in the final product. And without being able to show people real cost benefits for using motion-capture, just the artistic argument probably wouldn't hold up. Everybody wants to be able to produce better quality video games and TV and film and special effects, but if there is a heavy price premium on it or it meant that projects would be delayed, then we wouldn't go anywhere with it. But the fact that we can have our customers save money and produce super-realistic animation, that's the reason that we're having record years. SS: Do you imagine that this volume will increase in the future? BN: Absolutely. We tripled our business last year and we're on slate to do it again this year. SS: Will motion-capture become more prevalent to the average consumer?
BN: Absolutely. No question about it. Certainly, people are going to have more access to 3D. Existing programs and existing Web content are only now starting to investigate 3D. So, for the average consumer, they really don't understand what that is and how it can benefit them. But the future is only going to increase the amount of 3D accessibility that people have. In terms of whether people will have access to motion-capture themselves -- no question. One day there will be a product that will be able to capture the nuance of motion and have people, even at the consumer level, do something with it. The motion-capture horizons are fairly pretty right now. SS: What new arenas do you think we'll be seeing motion-capture in? BN: You'll see more 3D and more motion-capture on the Web. You'll see entertainment media that haven't been able to afford motion-capture so far. You'll see that prices are coming down and people will have more access to it. There are more service bureaus who are using motion-capture as their primary business and offering services for motion-capture. So, a whole bunch of people who don't currently use it now will have access to it because of better pricing, because of a better understanding of the technology, because the pipeline got simpler, and it's easy to use. All of the above. We're still at the bottom of the curve. Sharon Schatz is a writer in the New Media department at Fox Family Worldwide and is also a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.