CHARLESTON -- Gabe Grant was ecstatic when he saw the animated model on his computer actually match the movements of his body.

It was about a month ago when Grant watched in awe as the gray, mannequin-looking animated model on the computer followed along with him whether he waved his fingers around or clenched his fist.

The would be the first time Eastern Illinois University technology professor would test out the new motion capture equipment, a Perception Neuron suit, his department acquired through a university grant.

According to Grant, the technology program at EIU will be one of few outside of art institutes and private universities within the state with this kind of motion capture technology.

Motion capture technology is a relatively new technique in animating 3D models. Largely used in big budget blockbuster movies and video games, this technology allows creators to record movements digitally, largely to animate a digital model or character.

Motion capture has been used before in movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for the apes in the movie. 

Unlike in the case of these blockbuster movies, Grant was not wearing a bright green or blue suit with ping pong balls all across their body to mark movement, which is often seen in behind-the-scenes footage, but instead was wearing a skeletal-like series of cords and sensors that landed at specific sections and joints of his body.

Grant said growing interest in motion capture warranted the need or interest to teach students how to use motion capture in the animation field.

“A lot (movies) now are using people to animate the characters rather than doing frame by frame animation,” he said. “It speeds up the development process significantly. It is pretty wild.”

The motion capture system will just record the character on the computer mimicking whatever the person in the suit is doing.

The process of animating a 3D model, such as a character in a Pixar film, is normally monotonous work, but motion capture technology has changed the game of animation, Grant said. Outside of motion capture, creators in the entertainment space would have to digitally animate a model frame by frame.

“It would be really tedious and slow (frame-by-frame),” Maddie Smith, EIU student working with the suit, said.

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According to industry standards, it takes about double the time to do it frame by frame.

Along with the suit, students will eventually be using a Microsoft Kinect motion sensing camera that Grant said will allow them to play around with other aspects of motion capture like facial animation.

Grant said this equipment will be used in a current course in the technology department, Gaming Animation and Simulation, but will be used in a Digital Media program starting in Fall 2018, which will offer more in-depth course offerings utilizing the suit.

However, some students are already getting to try out the new equipment and brainstorm what ideas they might have to utilize this equipment.

Sam Przygoda, EIU student, said the first chance he got to test out the motion capture suit, his immediate move was to dance.

“It was fun to dance (with the suit),” Przygoda said. “You find out how little dance moves you have, though.”

Smith is doing an independent study centered around the equipment and has already planned out what she will be doing with the new motion capture suit. Smith said she will creating an EIU mascot Billy the Panther 3D model and eventual program it into motion capture software.

The end result would allow her to animate Billy the Panther digitally. With the Kinect, the 3D Billy model could also be used for live character animation. Grant said once the model is built they will eventually be able to bring a Kinect and a computer to open house events so he can “be” Billy on screen.

Beyond the learning about animation, Grant said there is also the potential for the technology to be used for other academic departments like Kinesiology and Sports studies for example for biomechanical purposes.

“I think we may end up having some collaborations here in the future,” Grant said.

For now, the suit and the camera will be used for character animation exclusively.

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Jarad Jarmon is a reporter for the JG-TC. He covers the city of Charleston, Eastern Illinois University, Mattoon schools and the Regional Office of Education.

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