J. Paul Peszko reports how Eyetronics hit a home run with its scanning solutions for two upcoming MLB videogames.
With the introduction of PS3 and Wii this holiday season, gamesters are going to be spending the new year looking for the most realistic next-gen games to play on their new platforms. Game producers, for the most part, will be hard pressed to meet the demand for realistic life-like characters. But if a gamester is also a sports enthusiast and, in particular, a baseball fan, they need to look no further than MLB 07 The Show and Major League Baseball 2K7.
While they may not have the same impact as, say, Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's home run record, MLB 07 and 2K7 will be groundbreaking events for the electronic game industry. They will most likely set the standard by which videogame characters are judged for realism and accuracy from here on out. And there is one company that is responsible for this breakthrough: Eyetronics.
Eyetronics specializes in high-resolution scanning services that enable faster production of animation-ready 3D models. Its scanning products and services are being used for a wide range of entertainment applications, including complex visual effects for feature films, television and commercials, as well as realistic character generation for computer games. In addition to entertainment, Eyetronics also provides custom 3D scanning hardware for various markets like medicine, sports, fashion and industrial applications where 3D models are required for measurement, analysis or quality control. All of their 3D models are ready for animation within various 3D animation packages such as 3ds Max, LightWave, Maya and Softimage.
However, their work on MLB 07 and 2K7 makes them especially proud because of the massive volume of scans and the strict time limits imposed by the Major League Baseball Players' Assoc. (MLBPA). It took some ingenious alterations in Eyetronics scanning systems to bring the entire project to fruition.
Eyetronics has two main systems that they use for scanning. Nick Tesi, Eyetronics' vp of operations, explains how Shapecam works, a process that allowed them to first take their technology out of the studio and on the road. "Shapecam is used for scanning people, animals and objects like cars and trucks. It projects a light pattern onto the character. The projected texture map is then photographed by a Canon digital camera with up to 4000 x 4000 resolution. It's an extremely portable unit that fits into one case."
But what if they needed to scan a large group of five or more like they did for Major League Baseball? That would be quite time consuming using Shapecam, which has to scan each character individually from all sides. So, Eyetronics developed their RotoScanner, which is essentially a large turntable. "With the rotating table, light is projected onto the characters as they go around and pictures of the grid are taken from a stationary position," Tesi adds. "It's not as portable as the Shapecam but can be loaded into six cases and carted to a location," which is exactly what Eyetronics did for the MLBPA. In fact, they did it no less than 30 times.
Originally it was reported that Eyetronics had scanned 1,200 major league players for the MLB contract awarded jointly by the MLBPA along with game developers Sony Computer Ent. America (SCEA) and 2K Sports to run on their PlayStation 3 (MLB 07) and Xbox 360 (2K7), respectively. In fact, the actual number of players scanned was closer to 1,450.
According to Tesi, "We had to visit 30 stadiums in Florida and Arizona during 2006 spring training and scan up to a hundred players a day at some locations, and we had to complete each scan within five minutes." While it is true that the development of the RotoScanner reduced scanning time from ShapeCam's 20 minutes per person to only three minutes, the RotoScanner was developed specifically to automate the scanning of full bodies. But the MLBPA contract presented yet another problem: it required full head scans.
This challenged the Eyetronics team to develop a similar automated solution for scanning full heads in large groups, thus extending the RotoScanner's ability. It also gave Eyetronics the ability to win the MLBPA contract "hands down over the competition," as Tesi puts it. "MLBPA said that nobody matched our quality or speed."
Eyetronics ceo Dirk Callaerts details how that entire test process took place: "MLB, together with Sony Interactive and 2K Sports, organized a 'test scanning' in November last year. The place was the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica. Eyetronics as well as some other competitors were invited to come, all at different times with the scanning equipment that was to be used for the MLB scanning during the 2006 spring training. MLB had a large suite in the hotel, and we were supposed to set up the equipment as fast as we could. This was timed. Then we had to scan five people, which was also timed, and finally we had to pack everything and leave, which was also timed. Within two weeks after the scanning, we had to deliver our scan data to Sony and 2K Sports. We had the fastest setup/break-up time...and our scans had the best quality, highest realism and cleanest high-resolution textures."
In fact, the quality of Eyetronics scans prompted John Olshan, MLBPA's category director for interactive games, to comment, "We selected Eyetronics for this project after an exhaustive review process because their graphics are drop dead beautiful and they have extensive experience working with high profile celebrities. They also provided innovative solutions to all of our concerns with respect to scanning a large number of people in a short period of time under unpredictable and often adverse conditions."
Although it might seem complicated, Tesi says that their technology is basically very simple. "Projecting a grid, light shape -- those are not complex concepts. But the magic at Eyetronics comes from our software background. Every one of our processes has a corresponding software solution that makes that particular technology work and work really well. This is our competitive edge and what sets us apart from others."
Eyetronics develops its proprietary software, which is mainly based on its patented ShapeSnatcher technology, in Leuven, Belgium. There the company constantly innovates its scanning technology to tackle new challenges. "In 1998, the ShapeSnatcher technology was developed, but this was based on a digital camera and a slide projector setup," states Callaerts. "In 2001, we innovated this setup into a portable ShapeCam, where the slide projector was replaced by a flash unit. The portable system made it possible for Eyetronics to enter the on-site scanning services for feature movies, computer games, commercials, etc. But then came the demand for scanning larger groups (crowds). With the ShapeCam, this takes a considerable amount of time, so then Eyetronics developed the RotoScanner."
Now with the conversion of RotoScanner for Major League Baseball so that it can perform rapid yet extremely accurate head scans of large groups, the bar for computer games has been raised across the board. But don't expect it to remain there for any length of time, given Eyetronics' propensity for innovation.
J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.