Jan. 8, 2008 -- Imagine you're at home firing up your video game console. Tonight's selection? Boxing. But instead of seeing Oscar de la Hoya punching away at Evander Holyfield, it's your face on your TV screen. And instead of using a joystick or a wand to become a boxing champion, all you do is punch and block in the air while the on-screen figure — your figure — mimics your moves in real time.
While this situation isn't exactly reality yet, Organic Motion, a Manhattan-based startup, is trying to make it one. The company is single-handedly changing the face of motion capture, traditionally a tedious process involving a complicated, latex suit used to create 3-D animated figures in films like "Beowulf." The startup has developed a way to capture movement without the motion-capture suit, allowing the technology to be moved from the animator's studio into doctor's offices, sporting goods stores and even your home.
"What if the computer could just see you? There's no paddles. There's no attached devices. There's nothing like that," Organic Motion CEO Andrew Tschesnok told ABCNEWS.com. "So the idea is that the next gaming system is going to place a few cameras and that'd be the controller. You simply get into your living room and you're in the game; you're the boxer. It's not about learning how to manipulate the controllers, you're just yourself. You're doing the boxing or you're running in place. … You're ducking and moving."
Motion capture technology is nothing new. Since the 1980s, movie directors and video game developers have used motion capture to create 3-D animated figures. With the help of video cameras, computers "read" markers (usually resembling ping pong balls) that dot a performer wearing a difficult-to-don latex suit. The computer then interprets the markers' movements into the movements of a human body, in effect animating a digital figure. For example, if a marker on a person's left hand moves up and down, the computer moves an animated figure's hand up and down.
The more traditional process, however, is fraught with problems; computers can "misread" the markers, moving the figure in unintended and unnatural ways. But the biggest hurdle is the suit. Typically, putting on the suit and placing the markers correctly takes about two hours; the suits and markers are expensive and a performer has to be paid to fill them.
The same complications apply for motion capture's use in the medical world — currently about 50 percent of the market, according to Tschesnok. Motion capture is one of the most accurate ways to measure movement in patients, for example those who have cerebral palsy or have suffered a stroke. But getting a suit on a patient, especially one with impaired motor skills, is difficult, if not humiliating.
Organic Motion's technology, however, removes these obstacles. Instead of reading markers, cameras read and render the actual movements of the person being recorded — no suits required — combining 2-D images to create a 3-D digital image on a computer screen.
That means animation can be done faster, more patients can be served in the same amount of time and the applications of the technology can be easily expanded to your mall's video arcade, sporting goods store, or your home — really almost anywhere.
"[Our system] really has applications everywhere in life that deal with motion," Tschesnok said.
A golfer walks into a golf shop looking for the best club for his swing; the technology analyzes it in the store and he walks out with a golf club suited just for him. Similarly, imagine not having a salesperson diagnose what shoe you should be wearing while you're training for the marathon; instead, an in-store computer analyzes your footwork on a treadmill.
"Anybody even within a year, within half a year, is going to go to some local store and have motion capture applied for the first time," Tschesnok said. "You're taking the know-how of the individual salesperson out of the equation."
The company isn't the only one singing its praises. Monday, Intel recognized Organic Motion's process at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas during a speech given by Intel CEO Paul Otellini.
At CES, Otellini showed off the technology with help from the lead singer of the band Smash Mouth, who jammed remotely with other musicians with the help of the 3-D rendering technology.
"Intel is investing in a vision of the future where game and other cyberspace interactions are controlled by an individual's gestures and voice instead of by game pads and wands," Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer, said in a statement. "Organic Motion's computer vision technology is part of that future where the collaborative Internet is visual rather than textual and in 3-D rather than 2-D. … Suffice it to say that the ability to process multiple live video feeds to create accurate 3-D models has far-reaching applications in the consumer and enterprise market segments."
Currently the new technology — it started shipping to customers this month — is being used both by the entertainment and medical worlds. In Massachusetts, the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard University, is using it to study children with cerebral palsy.
Its creators claim that while it may not have been the first to research markerless motion capture systems, it is the first company to execute the notion successfully and is in talks with several major (as yet, unnamed) companies.
According to Jonathan Rand, VP of Sales and Marketing, and Tschesnok, the possibilities are endless. They envision its widespread use in museums, stores and even bars.
"Where [traditional] motion capture can't go at all is in public spaces.… At a karaoke bar, you're not going to put on a suit. The idea of course is to be the singer on stage," Tschesnok said. "But imagine in the future that you get on the stage like you did before and you've got your microphone and you're Madonna in the background and she's moving just the way you're moving."
Three years from now the system could potentially be used in your home, according to Tschesnok, not just in a video game, but to control the whole house.
"Imagine the computer's no longer on your desk. The house is the computer and you come in and you point to the lamp and it might turn on," he said. "The house is now smart about who's inside and Grandma fell down and can't get up and she's the only one home. The computer can be smart enough to say, 'Grandma should never be lying on the floor and she's not moving. I'm going to call 911.'
"In that type of future, there's this blend in the digital home. It's entertainment but it's also watching Grandma. It's just a smart home — part of the alarm system."