Motion capture technology captures imaginations


The 16-camera apparatus enables real-life movements to be transferred to a computer




From fifth-graders from Agnes Irwin School to graduate students at Penn, everyone is captivated by the Engineering School’s motion capture facility at the SIG Center for Computer Graphics.

The technology, which is housed in the Moore Building, is partially funded by the National Science Foundation and is used by both faculty and students alike from inside and outside Penn.

The motion capture technology has been demonstrated an average of 23 times a year, according to Associate Director of Digital Media Design Amy Calhoun, for a variety of groups, including high school physics students.

“[The teacher] wanted her students in physics to see what you can do with physics later on,” Calhoun said. “So for her, motion capture is more relevant in graphics than some of the other things we might do.”

Other groups that have been exposed to the technology include Girls in Engineering and Related Sciences, middle schoolers, prospective Penn students and students within the digital media design major.

Professor Norm Badler, director of digital media design — a major offered within the Engineering school — explained the motivation behind exposing this technology to children as young as 11 years old.

“We want to capture their imagination at a young age,” Badler said. “There are things that exist that aren’t pure fantasy that can be very exciting and motivate them to go into a technology field.”

Badler described what the 16-camera technology specifically entails.

“[Someone] puts on a black leotard with reflective markers, the camera picks up positions of the markers, that becomes a 3-dimensional position of each marker in space, and then we know what that person is doing.”

“We capture not just the body motion, but we also capture a variety of physiological measurements,” Badler said.

“They include forces on the floor, the pressures on soles of the feet, the heart rate, respiration rate, galvanic skin response, eye movement and hand positions,” Badler added, explaining that this facility allows them to acquire more detailed information about physiology and movement.

Engineering students have used the motion capture technology for projects as well.

One student’s project is about an audience’s ability to gauge emotions purely from body movements.

“[It’s based on] how well you convey emotion just by your movements,” Calhoun said. “So you’re trying to discern just from someone’s movements but not from a person’s facial expressions anger versus excitement … it’s actually very hard because they’re both emphatic.”

The technology, which according to Calhoun is “probably the price of a Ferrari,” has even been used in some classes.

“I sometimes co-teach a course with an anthropologist … and last year when we taught the course one of the student projects was to recreate Incan beer-making,” Badler said. “The students came in, suited up and they went through the process of chewing the leaves, stirring the mix and decanting it out.”

Motion capture technology has been used across disciplines for a variety of age groups.

“We are a facility that could be utilized by people on campus with legitimate reasons to do that,” Badler said. “And legitimate is a broadly defined term — if people wanted to do interactive dance performances or they had reasons to collect data … we would certainly welcome them to contact us and explore what we could do together.”

This technology has not only reached students at the college level, but also a younger generation.

Calhoun said that children are more knowledgeable in regards to the technology than most would assume.

“Because of the outtakes that are present after so many animated films, you would be surprised that your average third-grader probably knows as much about a motion capture system as your average 20-year-old,” Calhoun said.

Associate Director of the SIG Center for Computer Graphics Aline Normoyle agreed.

“When I was in high school I had no idea what was available, and even if I saw it on special features it would seem like something only celebrities could do, something you [can’t] actually grow up and do,” Normoyle said. “I hope people go on these tours and they think, ‘Yeah, this is something I’m interested in.’”

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