"We designed iPi Soft Desktop Motion Capture with companies like Big Lazy Robot in mind – smart, creative boutiques seeking an easy-to-use and affordable motion capture system to achieve their filmmaking vision, but for whom traditional marker systems and green screen stages are out of practical reach."
-CEO Michael Nikonov on Big Lazy Robot's film Keloid
iPi Soft is a Moscow-based software company that specializes in "motion capture for the masses." Of course, many software companies claim their product is designed for use by hobbyists and pro-sumers, but not all of them deliver. After spending several weeks with iPi soft applications, I can truthfully say that it is an excellent choice for setting up your own motion capture studio at home. Not only have they designed high-quality motion capture software that works as advertised, but they've priced it in such a way that a wide range of users can benefit from the technology. From gamers trying to import motion into Source Filmmaker for their machinima project to small pro-level studios capturing stunt motions for their 3D short film, iPi Soft has created an affordable, yet powerful markerless motion capture system that gets the job done, and then some.
I've been following iPi Soft since I first met their CEO, Michael Nikonov, at Siggraph in 2009. From that first small demo booth, the company has grown in leaps and bounds. Recently, iPi Soft released Version 2.0 of their motion-capture software and its a major update to the previous version. Improvements like a new project file format, better tracking accuracy, optimized tracking of female body types, better video compression, new actor appearance models and skeleton structure, a helpful new project wizard and support for the ASUS Xtion and Kinect for Windows depth sensors make it much easier to set up, calibrate and record motions in a relatively small space with no special lighting. In addition, iPi Soft is looking to add support for finger key-framing and multiple person tracking and props this fall, which will make the future of this excellent motion capture program very bright. A full list of the updates in Version 2.0 is available here.
There are two parts to the iPi Soft Desktop Motion Capture workflow: first, you calibrate and record the motions you want by using either a Kinect 360, MS Kinect or ASUS Xtion depth-sensor. Note that the recording hardware is not included with iPi Soft—you'll have to purchase it separately. The recorder program, however, is a free download from the iPi Soft site. The next step is to use the iPi MoCap Studio V2.0 to process the video you created in the Recorder program and then export it to a format that works with whatever 3D program you choose. At present, iPi MoCap V2.0 exports animation to a wide variety of formats including FBX, Collada, Maya, Motion Builder, 3DS Max and Poser. A full list of export formats is available here.
iPi Soft comes in 3 separate versions. Express is the entry-level version and works with 1 depth-sensor device, but has no camera support. Basic is the slightly more advanced version and works with multiple camera and 1 or 2 depth-sensor devices. Standard is the professional level version that works with multiple cameras and multiple depth-sensors. The Standard version will also support multiple-person tracking when it becomes available in December, 2012.
In addition to the software, you'll need to decide on the hardware you want to use for motion capture. For this review, I used 2 Kinect depth-sensor devices, however you can also use the ASUS Xtion depth-sensor device. iPi Soft supports web cameras (they recommend the Sony PS Eye) and inexpensive digital cameras.
You'll need a mid-level computer or laptop with a fairly large hard drive for captured video. And you'll most likely need a USB extension cable in order to get the right depth-sensor placement from your computer. Make sure your laptop supports at least 2 separate USB controllers and has decent graphics performance. My Sony VAIO did not have either and I had to abandon my use of my laptop and move to my workstation. The hardware requirements aren't stringent, but you should make sure you meet at least the minimum standards to use 2 depth-sensor devices with iPi Soft.
Once you have all of your hardware ready, you'll need to organize a space of at least 9x5 feet (20x20 feet preferred) in order to calibrate and then capture your motions.
Set-up using 2 MS Kinects took about an hour after clearing a space in the living room of my apartment. I spent most of the time working with the USB connections for the cameras. Windows 7 doesn't make it easy to figure out how your USB ports are connected to USB controllers. iPi Soft requires that each depth-sensor device be connected to a separate USB controller. On the net I found an excellent free program from Microsoft called USBview that shows you exactly how your USB devices are connected. After using this neat little program it was a snap to hook up my 2 MS Kinects to individual USB controllers. The iPi Soft recorder program recognized both devices instantly and I was reader to calibrate.
Calibration takes a bit of time since the depth-sensors have to know what the floor plane and background is in order to read the motion you are going to create. Using the iPi soft recorder program wizard, you start with capturing the background. Once that's done, you use a flat rectangular poster board (in my case an old framed poster) to line up the planes for each Kinect device. It's important to be very detailed in this part of the process as it will make your actual motion capture much easier. When you are done, you save the calibration information.
Now that your depth-sensor devices are calibrated, you are ready to capture your custom motions using the iPi Soft Recorder. Once you click the record button, you move to your starting area (I used a piece of tape to mark the spot I stood in for calibration) and assume a T-pose with arms outstretched. This is important as you'll be matching up an iPi Soft rigged figure to your T-post later to process the motion your created. After holding the T-pose, start in on the motions you want to capture. In my case, I captured myself giving directions to someone and waving at them as they walked away. Repeat the motions again in order to have a version to work from. You should be able to see yourself in the small video monitors that show up in the dual-capture windows of the iPi Soft recorder. This makes it easier to adjust your position if you find that your entire body is not appearing in the capture windows. Once you have recorded your motions you save the scene.
Now it's time to move to the iPi Soft MoCap Studio to process your captured motions and export them in a format you can use in another software package like Poser, Cinema 4D, Maya or MotionBuilder.
Processing the captured motions involves binding an iPi Soft rigged model to your 3D figure created in the motion capture process. iPi Soft makes this relatively easy by providing tools to easily move and rotate both your model and the viewer position. You can also adjust the size of the actual 3D figure by changing the size, chest width and other properties to fit the figure to your motion captured model. You can set the length of the clip easily by dragging head or tail. Adjustments can be made to floor plane and camera in order to get the model to fit perfectly in both view angles of the 2 MS Kinects. Once you are satisfied with the model position, you hit the process button and iPi Soft MoCap Studio reads the motion data you created and attaches it to the model.
Once this is done, you simply hit the "process forward" button and wait for iPi Soft to process the motion to the 3D figure. You don't have to get the model perfectly aligned as the 3D figure will do some auto-adjusting, but it does pay to take your time and get the figures closely aligned.
Once the processing is over (and the time it takes will vary depending upon the speed of your graphics card) you are now ready to export the motion capture data to the 3D application of your choice. As I mentioned previously, iPi Soft supports all of the major motion data formats like .bvh, .dae, collada, .fbx and (to my delight) Valve Software's .smd format for animation. The process will vary according to the application you are using. I chose to export my captured motion as a .bvh file to the latest version of MAXON's Cinema 4D R14.
Once I imported the iPi Soft .bvh motion file, Cinema 4D recognized it and placed a bones-only model on the 3D stage. C4D played back my motion perfectly. Now all I have to do is bind a model to the bones, adjust the weights on the model and I've got the motions I created in my apartment attached to a 3D model inside of Cinema 4D. I could have just as well imported the motion-capture data into 3ds Max, Maya, MotionBuilder, iClone and many other packages.
And the best part of the whole process is that it took me about 2 hours from start to finish: no fancy markers, no suits and no special lighting. I did it all in my living room with iPi Soft and 2 Kinects.
There are several other low-cost motion capture solutions on the market, but none of them produce such high-quality results and are as simple to use as iPi Soft DMC Version 2.0. The calibration and capture process is simple to understand and the interface is clean and intuitive. While it's not real-time capture, as you have to wait until the data is processed before you can see how it looks on the 3D figure, the quality of the processing is excellent as is the exported data.
I used 2 MS Kinects which gives a much better ability to capture fully in 3D than a single Kinect, but even one works quite well. Plus, you can use a web cam or digital camera with decent results. iPi Soft has made the workflow easy to follow as long as you make sure you have the right hardware and computer to capture motion data.
You may also need to fine-tune the motion you've captured by smoothing the "jitter" or using a "trajectory filter." The application makes this relatively easy to do and the effects are quite powerful.
iPi Soft does have room for improvement. The camera placement and space dimensions are precise and if you try to capture motion data in too small a space, you only find out once you start fitting the data to the iPi soft 3D figure, which means you've wasted time. It would be helpful if the application could include a warning that the placement is not correct in order to save time. Also, documentation is adequate, but sparse and somewhat dated. The official video tutorials are 3 years old and have no audio. The iPi Soft wiki is quite useful, though, and the online community is active and growing.
It's also a shame that there isn't a version of the software available for Apple products. Many indie filmmakers and animators use Mac, so this is a user that iPi Soft needs to pay attention to in the future.
As recently as 4 years ago, it would have cost the small studio or individual user upwards of $6,000 and several weeks to capture quality motion for their projects. Now, with iPi Soft, for around $1,000 you can set up your own motion capture studio and create data that you can use in a wide variety of projects in only a few hours. Games, Machinima, 3D films, commercials, anything that accepts standard motion capture data files can work with iPi Soft. It's a cost-effective, efficient and fast way to capture motion data.
iPi Soft Version 2.0 is an excellent application that will continue to get better. The company is committed to enabling the small studio and freelance animator to capture motion data simply and inexpensively. I'm very impressed with iPi Soft and recommend the software highly. Grab the free recorder software, download the demo and use your web-recorder to capture some motion in your living room, or even in the backyard. It's really a lot of fun!
iPi Soft comes in the Express ($295), Basic ($595) and Standard ($1195) versions. You can see a chart here that breaks down what each version does. ipi Soft works only with the PC. There is an option to license the software for educational use. Contact the company for details.
iPi Soft is currently running a sale on the Express and Standard packages. The Express is $145 and the Standard version is $995. These are great values, so if you are interested be sure to check their "sales" section of the website for details.
Official Website: http://www.ipisoft.com/
Minimum Hardware/System requirements for iPi Soft DMC:
Notes: My sincere thanks to iPi Soft for providing a copy of the Standard version of their software for review. Also, I appreciate Vicky Gray-Clark and Raymond Ecke for making the two Kinects available in support of the review. Appreciate your patience and support.
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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