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A Simple Motion Capture System Delivering Powerful Results
UW-Stout is proving that it doesn’t need an elaborate system to capture the imaginations of students.
Several years ago the University of Wisconsin-Stout was ready to upgrade its design offering with a motion capture studio, but as a public institution it had to walk a thin line between providing students with an industry-ready, premium technology and managing a tight budget. Vicon had the flexibility to offer that balance.
“We’re the largest art and design program in the upper Midwest,” says Dave Beck, director for the award-winning School of Art and Design and an associate dean at UW-Stout. “We’re just over 1,000 students in art and design. Two of the largest and fastest-growing programs are game design and animation, and our game design program is nationally ranked by the Princeton Review.”
Destinations for alumni include Dreamworks; Last of Us games developer, Naughty Dog; and the studio behind the more recent Halo games, 343 Industries. Sectors such as construction and architectural visualization are increasingly taking an interest in the programs’ graduates, too.
It’s not just big players on the national stage who are drawing on UW-Stout’s graduate pool, either. Staff are seeing growing opportunities to work with, and provide a talent pipeline for, local companies interested in the possibilities of animation and gaming. To keep pace, it was important to provide students with experience in using the latest production technologies.
“A polytechnic university is all about preparing students for careers through applied, hands-on learning. Everything they’re doing is not just doing it from afar, it’s actually getting your hands dirty and creating it,” says Beck.
With all of that in mind, establishing a motion capture offering was increasingly becoming a priority.
“We felt that it was important to provide the students with an additional set of tools, an additional set of knowledge and competencies,” expands Andrew Williams, program director for game design and development. “When we look at the game and animation areas, especially in the larger, upper echelons of the industry, specialization is absolutely key to any viable path. We felt that this is another area where our students could specialize so that they could even better position themselves for some of those opportunities in the future.”
A RESOURCE-BASED PROBLEM
When the chance to carve out a motion capture space emerged, the School of Art and Design leapt at it.
“We were renovating and there looked to be a perfect opportunity to essentially create a cube that would work as a small mocap setup,” says Beck.
There was a catch, however. “We were looking at two or three different mocap options … to be perfectly honest, we are a state institution with little to no resources for additional equipment that would take us to that next level.”
While some of those options might have cost less, at least initially, Beck pushed for a Vicon system.
“It was a higher quality product and is used much more often in the industry,” he says. “And I wanted to make sure that we were preparing our students to work with the highest quality equipment and, historically, technology that has a lot of legitimacy in the industry. But then, finally, also [a product] that branches beyond just entertainment if and when we would want to take it in that direction with other partners on campus.
“It was honestly one of those rare situations where I said, I know it’s going to cost more money to do this, but I really believe strongly that we need to get this product specifically,” says Beck. Getting training and support with installation was a big factor, too. “We knew we needed to have that from the ground up for our staff and our faculty and our students as well.”
A SIMPLE SOLUTION
Despite being, at first glance, a more expensive motion capture option, Vicon offered a solution that met both UWStout’s need for quality and its budget. The combination of the Vero camera and Vicon’s Shōgun software allowed the department to start with just eight cameras, while retaining the flexibility to add cameras.
Furthermore, the department could bring in additional Vicon software solutions if the university wanted to expand the setup’s use into fields such as biomechanics or engineering.
The system has only been in place for a year and a half, but even before it was formally incorporated into the animation and games design programs students were rushing to use it.
“When the system became available while one of our cohorts was finishing its projects, [some of] the groups actually tore out their animations and then redid them all in mocap, because they want to have that experience in their project,” says Williams.
Jesse Woodward, a lecturer of animation at UW-Stout, adds that using the system to output animation through a game engine in real time excited the students, prompting some informative ad-hoc experimentation in VR.
Between the animation and game design programs, some 250 students already have access to the system, and there are more plans on the horizon. Looking ahead, Williams anticipates potential applications in telepresence, while design classes are already showing an interest in using the setup to study ergonomics. Sports science projects and partnerships with industry may follow.
What has started as a simple, compact system is already delivering big results and promises to open up even more doors for students in the future.