THE SMARTSUIT PRO IS A MOTION CAPTURE ‘NO BRAINER’ SOLUTION FOR HIGH-END STUDIOS AND MID-RANGE INDEPENDENTS
When it comes to video game development and digital filmmaking, motion capture is an incredibly important part of the process. Traditional optical motion capture can create some amazing storytelling moments – take Gollum from the original Lord of the Rings trilogy as a perfect example - but it is a cumbersome and complicated process.
But however integral it might be, the hardware is rarely affordable and existing motion capture systems require huge, dedicated studios to operate in. In fact, the traditional, professional motion capture camera-based systems many studios work with can set you back a whopping US$50,000, and it’s not uncommon for that price to balloon to well over US$100,000, maybe more. Not very democratic then?
So if a company came along with an idea to revolutionise motion capture by building a suit that is easy to use, cost effective and the sets the filmmakers and game developers free from the shackles of the traditional studio, you are more than likely going to sit up and listen.
This is exactly what Danish firm Rokoko has done. Founded by Jakob Baslev, Anders Kullman Klok and Matias Søndergaard, the Copenhagen-based brand is just about to deliver its first orders of the Rokoko Smartsuit Pro, a wireless full-body motion system that doesn’t require an external camera tracking system and doesn’t need a dedicated space to be used in. According to its founders, it gives you full freedom of motion, and the freedom to capture motion anywhere. All you need is space to move around, a wifi network, and a computer to receive the capture data.
Available to the public at a fraction of the cost of traditional systems – at just US$2,495 - the Smartsuit Pro (a full body jumpsuit that you slip into created in collaboration with KTC) is a motion capture ‘no brainer’ solution for high-end studios and mid-range independents. What’s not to like?
Manufaktur catches up with co-founder Matias Søndergaard to find out what went into designing and developing the Smartsuit Pro and to understand Rokoko’s grand vision to introduce a way to achieve a natural physical presence in the virtual world.
TO GET TO WHERE WE ARE WE HAVE MADE A LOT OF PROTOTYPES
SO TELL US HOW ROKOKO CAME ABOUT?
The company was founded three years ago. Usually motion capture requires many cameras recording a larger number of sensors on an actor, a stage with very controlled, even lighting, and a tremendous amount of data. Even once you have gone through the expense of building or renting a mocap stage, you still need an experienced team of experts to process the data captured; and the system often gets confused about the data it is processing. We wanted to merge the best parts about animation, where you could have an actor who is on the stage playing animated characters in front of a crowd, with video games and theatre to deliver a real sense of authenticity and create storytelling through natural interaction with the crowd. But because of all the complexities with traditional methods of mocap it was all a bit of a mess. So my co-founder AndersKullman Klok, , came up with the idea of embedding all of the necessary technology into one full body suit, that would allow you track specific movements and transfer these movements into creating animated characters in a live setting.
IT SOUNDS COMPLICATED. IT MUST HAVE TAKEN A LOT OF TIME IN DEVELOPMENT?
We made the first suit about three years ago - with a different example of sensor technology - because we had to find out what works and what could be cheap enough and simple enough for people to use who are not necessary tech savvy with an engineering background. We wanted something that creative people could operate. To get to where we are we have made a lot of prototypes. The first was a full body suit with sensors taped on with duck tape and Velcro straps. It was very primitive. It has taken three years to make the first commercial products and we will start to ship out this in April. We have just had some boxes delivered from KTC today, so it’s very exciting. In two weeks we will start shipping out the very first suits.
WHEN YOU SAY IT IS COMMERCIAL?
If you compare it to a lot of optical motion capture systems, the price starts at US$40,000 compared to one of our suits will be sold for US$2500. The suit features an array of 19 embedded 9-degrees of freedom (9-DoF) IMU sensors. The suit includes sensors for your arms, hands, legs, feet, and torso that track your movements with high precision. The sensors connect to a central hub that transmits the captured data to your computer in real-time via WiFi connection. All of this is included in the price, so compared to the competition we are extremely cheap.
IN EUROPE WE CAN STILL DO SHIRTS AND SUITS, BUT WE CAN’T DO PERFORMANCE APPAREL AT THE LEVELS THAT WE REQUIRED
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH KTC?
We only got involved with KTC maybe just one year ago. There is only a very small textile industry left in Denmark – that mainly does underwear. When we approached people about the project they said it was sports or performance wear and said with this sort of technology and materials, you should make it in China. In Europe we can still do shirts and suits, but we can’t do performance apparel at the levels that we required.
We had a connection to a factory in China and had two or three samples done with them, but it was really hard to get the communications rights and the price right. For some reason the price kept going up and up because they did not fully understand the complexity of our product. So I started to look out for factories in China. Through this research, I discovered that the nearest products to what we were after were skiing and hiking gear – because of what those products have to withstand. We knew that we have other demands, but if we could find someone who could solve those sorts of problems for skiing and cycling, they could also solve ours.
I found out that KTC did a lot of ski and sailing gear as well as hiking gear and even cycling gear for Rapha, so I contacted them. I left a message wondering if it was something they would be interested in. As it happened they were.
WHAT OTHER PROBLEMS WOULD YOU ENCOUNTER WITH YOUR PRODUCTS?
As well as the amount of sensors, their placement has to be perfectly executed so the orientation of the sensor when it is used is right. The sensors have to be tight into the specific body areas. We also have a whole tunnel system of wires that goes directly to the hub on the side of the back – it should not touch the skin and it shouldn’t be visible from the outside either. It has to be very intuitive how you attach and detach from the system, particularly when you have to wash the suit. We have worked closely with KTC to overcome any issues. We knew there would be a lot of going back and forth – and we hoped we could have done this faster – but these things take time. You have to make sure the quality is right for the final production and KTC was highly professional from the start.
HOW IMPORTANT WAS THE WAY THE SMARTSUIT PRO LOOKED?
We wanted to make it black and we wanted to make it look as simple to use as possible. People who are animating things are acting things out, if they are wearing something very colourful we thought people would not take them too seriously and that they might focus on how the looks more than the actual movements. We tried to keep it subtle and focus on the finishing and the seaming. We wanted everything to look good and have a good touch to it too, so you would start to forget that you were wearing a high-tech full body jumpsuit with a lot of embedded hardware and software. KTC is the perfect partner for delivering all of this.
THROUGHOUT THE PROCESS, KTC ALWAYS SEEMED TO ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS, TO MOVE THINGS ON AND GET TO A BETTER SOLUTION
IF YOU ARE ACTING SMARTSUIT PRO IS GOING TO HAVE TO WITHSTAND QUITE A LOT?
For us it was all about the fabrication. The first layer of fabric was going to protect all the technical side of things. It had two way stretch, so that when the actor stretched it did not stretch the cable itself. On the inside you had a breathable and stretchable mesh, that makes it sound proof – you don’t want noise but you want it to be incredibly comfortable. It is the same sort of technology that goes into creating cycling apparel. The whole thing is for the wearer to forget that they have something on. It should be tight in key places but not uncomfortable. It is designed to support your ambition and your performance, whilst empowering you to do it better. Throughout the process, KTC always seemed to ask the right questions, to move things on and get to a better solution.
THERE MUST HAVE BEEN CHALLENGES?
We were hoping to do a one size fits all design. But we knew it wouldn’t be possible, because we are selling to a global niche market, which would include people from Japan and Korea, Germany and Africa, North America and they all have completely different body proportions. So we had to make as few sizes as possible, but make sure people had something that could be used. We ended up at four generic sizes incorporating all the different size possibilities and different body proportions.
ARE YOU NEAR TO THE PERFECT SOLUTION?
We have had some great feedback from the people we are dealing with. We are in a great place. We think the market will be really pleased to see the product we have coming. We will use the feedback into creating new product lines and develop into new areas such as sport technology. KTC would be great in helping us develop those too!
FOR MANY YEARS ‘MADE IN CHINA’ HAS HAD A NEGATIVE PERCEPTION IN THE WEST? WE BELIEVE THAT PERFORMANCE SPORTSWEAR MADE IN CHINA IS THE BEST IN THE WORLD! WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS IN RELATION TO KTC?
I think this perception is shifting. I think a lot of the quality and know how at this level of the market is based in China. Let’s face it that’s why we went there in the first place. It has producing products at this level for many decades – there’s nowhere that come close as far as we are concerned. Funnily enough all of our electronics are made there too.