By Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry
A new motion-capture technique from the person who helped bring you QuickTime is turning actors into digital characters capable of anything imaginable.
Tekla S. Perry
I've been captured. Motion captured, that is, with one of the new types of motion-capture technology that may soon revolutionize the movie and videogame industry and make living actors indistinguishable from those that live inside computers. You can read all about this coming revolution in "Ready for Their Close-Ups" (by Eric Pavey). And you can see my digital head in action in this month's Back Story column, "Face Time".
To turn myself into a new-generation Max Headroom, I drove from my Palo Alto office to San Francisco's Dogpatch district on a rainy day in February. There, a company called Mova is putting actors in a cage and turning their performances into digital files that can be altered at a director's will, making the actors older, younger, or into space aliens.
The neighborhood, a mix of old factories, auto body shops, construction supply yards, and a power distribution substation a few blocks from the city's waterfront, isn't exactly posh. After a long climb up several flights of concrete stairs (the elevator was broken), I entered Mova's studios, where company founder Steve Perlman and several technicians and production assistants waited.
Steve Perlman? That name ought to ring a bell. Remember WebTV, one of the first companies that tried to bring entertainment content from the Internet to the home television screen. Perlman co-founded it, and Microsoft eventually bought it. How about QuickTime? Perlman led the development of the technologies that became that software within Apple, and then went on to join General Magic before founding three investor-backed companies. Now, he runs Rearden Companies, formerly Rearden Steel, a technology incubator. And Mova's new motion-capture system, called Contour, is one of the technologies Rearden incubated.
PHOTOS: MARK RICHARDS; MOVA
Given that I had to spend about an hour in make-up—Contour records and analyzes the pattern of marks made on an actor's skin when phosphorescent makeup is dabbed on with a rough, exfoliating sponge—it was nice to have Perlman there. (Click on this link to view a slideshow of the Contour process.) Because besides being an incredibly prolific entrepreneur, he is an entertaining storyteller and didn't need much prompting to tell me the story behind Mova.
Perlman always loved movies and animation. He made his first Claymation films back in junior high. He bought a motion-capture system in 1997, the kind that requires sticking little balls all over an actor and shining lights that would reflect back from the balls and be recorded as dots. He played with motion capture as more of a hobbyist than a businessman, getting more serious in 2000 when he started doing motion capture under contract to movie and game companies, eventually spinning that business out of Rearden into Mova. And he began to try to invent the next generation of motion-capture technology, one that wouldn't use markers and would be optimized for capturing facial motion and expression.
"It was an Edisonian journey," Perlman told me, reflecting on all the dead-end roads Edison took in his development of the light bulb. "We tried ultrasonics, seeing if we could measure sound waves. We tried sending light waves and trying to measure the time of flight. We tried optical flow, which is a technology that tracks pores in the face, the problem with that is actresses spend a lot of time making sure you can't see the pores. We tried retroreflective materials, but that involved tiny glass beads, which wouldn't be very safe to use on skin."
At this point, Perlman and his research team were working in an office subleased from Android, a start-up company in downtown Palo Alto. They used the central, windowless space, because, at times, they needed to be able to work in the dark. In August 2005, their officemates moved out, and another start-up, the now famous Facebook, moved in. Mova's development continued uninterrupted surrounded by the chaos of the nascent Facebook.
The group finally settled on phosphorescent Halloween makeup, typically yellow, but which, mixed with theatrical makeup, approximated a flesh tone. To give the best information on facial movement to the computer, the makeup artist had to apply the makeup to the actors face in a noticeable but random pattern. The development team tried an airbrush, which made nice spots in some areas but dense blobs in others. They tried paintbrushes, and a variety of sponges, finally settling on an exfoliating sponge. They unveiled their technology last summer, moved it up to their San Francisco studios, and are now working full out on projects for movie and videogame companies.
Back in Palo Alto, development on the next generation of Contour continues, currently in Perlman's garage. The company's lease on the space ran out at the end of last year, and Facebook booted them out. They're looking for new Palo Alto office space now.
"We like being there for a bunch of reasons," Perlman said. "Palo Alto has the northernmost Fry's. [Fry's is a chain of electronics stores that is a mecca for Silicon Valley engineers.] We rely on Fry's enormously for quick access to parts, processors, boards, and connectors. Palo Alto is also a Caltrain stop, and we have another stop here near our studio."
Perlman could have talked all day, but the makeup on my face was completely dry and I was ready to be captured. Perlman stepped aside, a director slammed a clap-board in front of my face, and it was take one. I said my piece, and, after about five takes, made a series of extreme faces; those will go to production studios as test data. Could be some famous director will decide to turn me into a strange sea creature or alien.
Newsletter Sign Up
Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.
Day Four at Pikes Peak Motorcycle Race With the Buckeye Current Team
Will today's bug defeat the Ohio State student engineers?
Lithium-Sulfur Batteries Overcome Another Limitation: High Temperatures
Could safe, durable and high-temperature Li-S batteries lead to EV applications?
The Trials of Turning a Digital Light Projector Into an Ultraviolet 3-D Printer
An enticing idea turns out to be devilishly complex
Video Friday: Cloud Robotics, MARLO in the Forest, and Eagle Kills Drone
Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos
3 Ways to Build an Artificial Kidney
Researchers are taking different approaches in the drive to end conventional dialysis
Day Three at Pikes Peak Motorcycle Race With the Buckeye Current Team
And the bug of the day is a throttle that suddenly cuts out
Getting Zero-Carbon Emissions Will Be Tougher For Airliners Than For Cars
Batteries are way too weak, and it’s easier said than done to turn vegetable oil into a kerosene substitute
Boston Dynamics' SpotMini Is All Electric, Agile, and Has a Capable Face-Arm
A fun-sized version of Spot is the most domesticated Boston Dynamics robot we've seen
People Want Driverless Cars with Utilitarian Ethics, Unless They're a Passenger
We want autonomous cars to be as safe for everyone as possible, as long as they're safest for us first
Electrification Causes Economic Growth, Right? Maybe Not
A pair of innovative studies from UC Berkeley questions the accepted wisdom that electrification begets economic and social development
Day Two at Pikes Peak Motorcycle Race With the Buckeye Current Team
To win this race you have to kill bugs faster than the competition can
FAA Announces Commercial Drone Rules
Want to make some money with your drone? Here's what you'll have to do first
Bagging Poachers With Data
Remote, real-time monitoring of animals lets wildlife conservationists get the drop on poachers
Europe Will Spend €1 Billion to Turn Quantum Physics Into Quantum Technology
A 10-year-long megaproject will go beyond quantum computing and cryptography to advance other emerging technologies
Day One at Pikes Peak Motorcyle Race With Ohio State's Electric Motorcycle
Yesterday's time trial teased out a teething pain—a noisemaking system that mysteriously goes silent
Nanocones Boost Efficiency of Solar-based Water Splitting
Could an economically viable, emission-free hydrogen isolation technique be at hand?
Strategies for Retaining Female Engineers
Companies find that boosting diversity can help the bottom line
Custom Processor Speeds Up Robot Motion Planning by Factor of 1,000
A preprogrammed FPGA can take motion planning from frustrating to instantaneous
Brain Scanning Just Got Very Good—and Very Unsettling
The U.S. government’s Human Connectome Project moves into its second phase—and its brain scans are being used to predict individuals’ behavior and intelligence
Was the Internet Inevitable?
Can we imagine an alternate history resulting in many isolated networks?