|Lab Rat: Let's
play with Microsoft|
April 5, 2001 12:00am
Realism has always been the Holy Grail for both animators
and game developers. Games often live or die on their
creator's ability to program personality into their
characters; just look at how Tomb Raider's Lara Croft has
become a superstar. But currently, game development companies
have to pay programmers buckets of cash to achieve those
long known for its desktop software, is showing a more playful
side these days, with Xbox, the game platform that wowed game
enthusiasts and technologists alike, and new software tools
that will provide consumers with the ability to create their
own games and animations.
But the Redmond giant isn't stopping there. It wants to
make the game experience even more personal, which is why the
graphics group at Microsoft
Research is working on Face Mapping, software that lets
computer users scan their heads in 3D using a $100 webcam. The
tools include Expression, a technology that creates facial
animation; Verbs, which can make an animated character walk,
run, jump, or jive; and Adverbs, which gives characters
Of course, the ability to animate with emotional expression
or scan a cranium is not new. Any Hollywood director with a
large wad of cash, some expensive scanning equipment, and half
a dozen highly paid animators can achieve such wonders.
What's new here? Microsoft is making the creation of
realistic animation easy and cost-effective. Simply put,
Microsoft is doing what Microsoft does best: bringing complex
computer programming tasks to the less-technical user. What's
more, if successful, such tools may do for animation and games
what the digital camera has done for desktop video by making
the creation of animation as easy and as popular as editing a
To make the economics of game
development more tangible, let's take a look at head scanning.
To do this now, a developer needs a very complex piece of
equipment that uses lasers to gauge the shape of the head and
cameras to read the hair color and skin tone. When all of
those data are captured, the computations are done on a large
computer so that the texture and shape can be mapped onto a
With Microsoft's Face Mapping, all the game user or
developer does is have someone sit in front of a cheap webcam
and have the camera record their facial image, which is then
used to assemble a model of the face, utilizing 50 predefined
parameters. It's not that much different from the way a police
artist builds the face of a suspect with an IdentiKit package.
Face Mapping simply matches the subject's chin to one of its
predefined chins, then the nose, ears, and so on. The finished
product, it has to be said, is about as pretty as a police
sketch and makes most subjects actually look like they have a
Why bother, then? Well, it appears that gamers have a
desire to see themselves and their friends take part in the
game they are playing. Other applications could include using
a 3D representation of one's self during online meetings or
instant messaging conversations, according to Microsoft
Research graphics group team leader Michael Cohen.
Mr. Cohen's team is also developing animation software that
provides novice game users with simple point-and-click tools
for creating a realistic image.
WALK THIS WAY
But the quest for realism
doesn't end at the neck. Game developers want to give their
characters more personality; for example, a happy walk or a
wounded walk. That isn't so easy. Typically, animators get an
actor and put him in a sensor-embedded suit. The sensors' data
are fed into the computer; the animator then must map the
motion to the animated character.
That's where Microsoft's Verbs and Adverbs come in handy.
The actor's motion still has to be recorded, but with the
tool, the mapping is automatically generated, thus dispensing
with the need to have highly paid animators hand-code the
Some game observers even believe it's possible that not too
long from now, actors' motions could be sold by companies like
Viewpoint (a firm that
provides an A to Z of 3D objects) as prerecorded data objects.
At that stage, enthusiastic amateurs will be able to build
their own animations without ... well, having to animate. Once
they have added the motion from Verbs, they can add the
emotional expression of that motion from Adverbs.
No doubt game developers will be the first to take
advantage of such tools, but it may not be long before
enthusiastic amateurs follow suit and use them to create their
own games and animations. So why is it that Microsoft, a
company that, after all, has been focused on the business
market, has taken an interest in games and animations? Well,
it's just another take on Bill Gates's famous maxim: content
is king. Only this time, the corporation is trying to get
users to create their own content. Who knew playing games
would become such a serious business?
Niall McKay is a contributing editor to Red
Herring magazine and can be contacted at http://www.niall.org/.
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