While most high school students are pushing parental boundaries, Keanu Brayman, a high school student and team co-captain and animation lead of the Dirty Mechanics Competition Team 3923, is more interested in pushing his motion capture creativity. Keanu and fellow members of the Dirty Mechanics team compete in FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a non-profit international youth organization that aims “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation.”
For the past three years, iPi Soft has been a team sponsor providing licenses of our markerless motion capture solution, iPi Mocap, as well as technical support.
Founded by Dean Kamen, the inventor and advocate for science and technology, FIRST has over 97,000 students and 29,000 volunteers. The Dirty Mechanics team is comprised of students aged 13 to 18 from 12 different schools, placing a heavy emphasis on teaching digital skills to those who are younger to ensure the sustainability of the team’s future projects.
While the Dirty Mechanics’ key focus is building 60kg robots for competition, the league also competes in FIRST animation competitions. In 2021, Dirty Mechanics submitted a sophisticated short animation film “Be Safe to Each Other” to the FIRST Robotics Safety Animation Award. The project fully utilized iPi Soft 3D motion capture technology and allowed the team to experiment with real-time virtual production by streaming mocap data from iPi Mocap Studio to Unity 3D and using an HTC Vive VR system for camera tracking. (behind the scenes video link).
“We have used iPi Mocap to compete in FIRST competitions three years in a row and appreciate iPi Soft’s continued support of our animation projects,” Brayman says. “Learning as we go, my team has grown strong as has our knowledge and passion for animation.”
We spoke to Keanu about his team’s animated short films and how our technology helped bring them to fruition.
Q. How did the Dirty Mechanics team first hear about iPi Mocap?
KB: This will be the team’s third year using the software. While preparing to work on our submission for the FIRST Robotics Competition 2020 Digital Animation Award, I started searching for a motion capture solution that we could use without prohibitively expensive equipment, and quickly found iPi Soft’s website. iPi Mocap was exactly what we needed to perform achievable motion capture with amazing results.
Q. What was the creative brief for the film?
KB: The FIRST competition is sponsored by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). They were asking teams to “create an environment where everyone feels safe to do their best work. We know it is critically important that teams are physically safe by making sure work environments are clean, organized and hazard-free, but safety is also about caring for each other’s feelings and mental well-being – their psychological safety.” Film submissions were restricted to 40 seconds, including opening titles and credits.
Q. What is the storyline for the film?
KB: Our animated film “Be Safe to Each Other” shows a robotic astronaut walking through a derelict spaceship corridor while being stalked by a shadowy figure. Thankfully, the shadow turns out to be just another friendly astronaut. After this reveal, the ship’s astronauts work together to repair the corridor.
Q. Tell us about how the team fully utilized 3D motion capture and built a working real-time capture system and virtual production pipeline.
KB: Our real-time capture system used the iPi Recorder running two Microsoft Kinect V2 sensors with the distributed recording; real-time motion tracking in iPi Mocap Studio; live streaming mocap data to Unity; an HTC Vive VR system tracking a motion controller as a virtual camera; a phone attached to the controller streaming the virtual camera’s perspective. This system was developed and tested in conjunction with our “Safety Animation” film project, although we opted to use a more standard iPi Mocap workflow for our final submission. This decision was made due to lower framerates in the real-time stream.
Q. How long did the team work on the Safety Animation piece? What were the overall motion capture technical challenges that the team faced?
KB: Our team spent about three months writing a script, developing our mocap system, creating 3D assets, acting out scenes, and rendering the final product. Our greatest challenge was finishing all the complex character animations in our script before the competition deadline. Thanks to iPi Mocap, we were able to create refined, highly accurate animations using motion capture, a task that took only a few hours. Without iPi Mocap, such an undertaking would undoubtedly have involved weeks of tedious keyframe animation.
Q. How did the team improve on its mocap skillset since your previous films?
KB: We learned a lot in the time between the 2020 “Infinite Reef” film and our 2021 “Safety Animation.” First, our overall knowledge of animation and rendering improved immensely. For the 2021 film, we utilized ray-tracing to create a much more realistic look. Additionally, we gained a much better sense of scope, deciding to focus on a single scene with a small number of detailed assets rather than modeling as many things as possible. We also became much more experienced with iPi Mocap, allowing us to incorporate more complex motions in our script. The primary goal of these projects is for everyone on the team to learn as much as possible, and that goal is certainly being achieved.
Q. You mentioned Dirty Mechanics is planning to improve its real-time virtual production system even further by utilizing Unreal Engine 4 and switching to PlayStation Eye cameras for tracking. How will iPi Mocap be incorporated into this pipeline? Is there a project underway?
KB: We are excited to say that there is a project underway. Currently, we are in production for our FRC 2022 Digital Animation Award submission. Our newest pipeline utilizes iPi Mocap with 8 PlayStation Eye cameras arranged in a circle. This has facilitated a smoother workflow by allowing us to operate the entire mocap system with a single PC and avoid some annoyances present in the Microsoft Kinect Sensors. Once we have captured high quality motion capture data with iPi Mocap, we import the resulting files into Unreal Engine 4, then record the final render in real-time using our HTC Vive VR system to track a virtual camera.