Eric Johnson

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Mixamo Aims to “Democratize” Motion Capture, Keep Dots Off People’s Faces

serkisIf you’ve seen “Avatar,” Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”/“Hobbit” movies, or “The Polar Express,” you’ve seen motion capture in action. It’s the technology that makes it possible, for example, to translate Andy Serkis’s real-life motion into the CGI character Caesar in the underrated film “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” pictured at right.

But as that picture shows, motion capture for movies — as well as for videogames like 2011’s L.A. Noire — requires some specialized equipment. Most of the time, that means both special cameras and preperformance prep for mo-cap actors like Serkis, who wear tracking dots or other markers to tell computers where and how their faces and bodies are moving.

Animation startup Mixamo is releasing a tool this week that does away with the dots and aims to turn anyone’s facial expressions and eye movement into 3-D character animation in real time.

The tool is called Face Plus, and it will be packaged along with the other 3-D character modeling and animation tools in Mixamo’s “all access” package, which it licenses to animators and game developers for $1,500 per year. The notion is that those professionals may want to put together animated shorts or cutscenes for games without bringing in actors or otherwise leaving their workstation, so Face Plus is advertised to work with any Webcam on any computer.

“The actor can be the developer,” Mixamo CEO Stefano Corazza said in an interview.

Face Plus is designed to work alongside the game engine Unity (the two companies have been partners for years), and Mixamo’s announcement was timed to the Unite conference happening this week in Seattle. During the Unite keynote, CTO Joachim Ante played a portion of the following animated short, made by Mixamo inside of Unity:

Face Plus will be accessible through Mixamo’s plugins for Unity and will also include access to a video editor for the clips of facial animation users record. I visited Mixamo’s office in San Francisco earlier this week, and got a quick demo of Face Plus with Corazza:

As you can see, the demo was not quite L.A. Noire-perfect, but it’s impressive how well it worked, given that I started recording just a few seconds after Corazza sat down. I then took his place and had similar results animating the “Battery Boy” character’s face. It was especially fun when Corazza tinkered with the sensitivity of the software, making the Battery Boy’s “reactions” to our expressions frighteningly over-the-top or adorably subtle.

For users with simpler needs, Corazza said, the animations recorded by Face Plus may be good to go as soon as they’re recorded. However, he acknowledged that, as with other forms of animation, the devil’s in the details, and pros will want to go in to fix the subtler things. Face Plus, he said, gets those pros “80 or 90 percent of the way there.”

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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo