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Walk like a dog

Speed read
  • Current motion-capture technology doesn’t work well with animals
  • Each breed possesses its own unique gait and movement characteristics
  • Scientists team up with local animal shelter to study animal motion

Films such as Planet of the Apes use motion capture techniques to transform their human actors into apes, but this process doesn’t work so well for true four-legged animals.

A dog's life. Shelter dogs get star treatment during a research project to make animal animations more realistic. Courtesy University of Bath.

That’s why researchers are creating a library of movement data from different dog breeds to make animal animations in films and video games more realistic.

Computer scientists from the Centre for Analysis of Motion, Entertainment Research & Applications (CAMERA), at the University of Bath, are looking to automate this process.

Two legs to four

CAMERA scientists are developing a new technique that will use the movements of a two-legged human actor to drive a four-legged animal character, to make it move in a more realistic way.

The team has invited canine residents from the local Bath Cats and Dogs Home to their studio to help collect the motion capture data.

<strong>See Spot move.</strong> Special markers on the dog's coat reflect infared light that is sensed by motion capture cameras. Courtesy University of Bath.

“At the moment, actors have to walk around on all fours, and the computer software changes them into an animal,” says Martin Parsons, Head of Studio at CAMERA.

“What we want to do is to look at the movements of the human actor and then use a kind of translator to look at a library of real animal data to make the character on the screen move in a realistic way.

“It works a bit like a puppeteer, with the actor using their whole body to drive the animal avatar.”

Hollywood treatment

The dogs wear special coats with reflective markers fixed onto them. Infrared light hitting the 63 markers is sensed by Vicon motion capture cameras placed around the edge of the studio, which record the 3D position of the marker.

The collected information is used to reconstruct the movement of the dogs on the computer screen and processed using Vicon’s Shogun software.

<strong>Good dog.</strong> Each breed of dog moves differently, from length of stride to width of stance. Courtesy University of Bath.

The dogs play on an agility course set up in the studio with their carers from the Home and an animal behavioral assistant on hand to help them interact, overcome any camera shyness, and of course, have fun.

Simon Lynn, Head of Animal Operations at Bath Cats and Dogs Home, says: “This is such an innovative project for our dogs and team to be a part of. It will be so beneficial for the dogs taking part as it is great socialization for them—meeting new people and seeing different sights and sounds.”

“Kennel life can become repetitive so we’re always looking at ways to add enrichment to our dog’s lives whilst they’re waiting to be adopted. A trip to the CAMERA team at the University of Bath definitely fits the bill.”

No two dogs

Similar to the way that each human walks with his or her own unique gait, different breeds of dogs exhibit different movement patterns. Lurchers, for example, have a longer stride and narrower stance than the American bulldog, which has shorter and heavier steps.

“These differences in gait affect the shoulder and head position through the step cycle, and distribution of weight across the four legs and feet—all of which are important considerations for effective animation of animal avatars,” says Oscar de Mello of CAMERA.

<strong>Dog tired.</strong> Tummy rubs are the reward for a hard day's work improving the future of animal representation on screen. Courtesy University of Bath.

The project will use many different breeds to study the different gaits of the animals, and hope to expand the project to use cats next year.

As well as informing the research at CAMERA, the data collected during the shoots will be used as part of collaborative research and developments projects with industrial partners to drive the next generation of tools and processes across the visual effects and games industries.

“We’re really grateful to the Bath Cats and Dogs Home for letting us work with their dogs,” says Parsons. “It’s fantastic to be working with an important local charity just down the road from the University, and we’re delighted to also be making a donation to help these dogs find new homes and save many other animals in the area.”

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