Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Augmented Reality Without Mushrooms

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."
 -"Big AL" Einstein

Last month, I was shown this video by my old pal Jerry Rees. 

My head fell off.  A week later, I saw this one, below (skip to about 1:30 to get to the interesting stuff).  

Now, I’ve been around long enough to say I’ve been around long enough.  And for the first time in years I saw something animated that really blew my mind.  How do they do it?   Jerry explains “Augmented Reality” and his work with AMUSME, a start-up new-tech company he has been working with as Lead Creative.

Jerry Rees: 
"Augmented Reality (AR) is a process that allows web cams and/or smart mobile devices to show you a live image of what is actually there (the Reality part), plus an added element that isn't actually there (the Augmented part).  Software locks the Augmented element to the scale and perspective of a preordained marker in the real space.  This "tracking" to the marker is essential in making the added element seem to be part of the physical world.  When you move the marker in Reality, the Augmented element moves right along with it.

Old school tracking markers used to be blocky black & white symbols.  We now use image recognition.  This allows the app to "recognize" almost any image, such as a face or a logo and launch the software.

The term Augmented Reality is used pretty indiscriminately by many companies, often referring to a flat overlay that doesn't track, or just a link to a traditional website or video playback. 

We are excited to push the AR envelope with true 3D animation that tracks the real world and includes original music and sound.  We aim to create involving experiences and we aim for high quality.  Since AR places extreme limitations on the amount of data that can be streamed live, we are constantly exploring work-around strategies to elevate the sense of production value.  One day soon, cloud computing and hardware advancements will work together to remove most of these limitations.  Until then we valiantly joust!

When planning out the Augmented Reality pieces, I start with sketches.  I storyboard the expected attitudes and action.  My storyboards for Owney included plans for him to sit up and beg, catch a little envelope in his mouth, toss it back to you, bark, trot and run.  The idea was for updates of the app to feature Owney doing more and more interactive tricks - to display more and more personality.

Our Maya animator Jeff Clifton started building Owney in 3D, keeping in mind his required activities.

I rendered a pose test cycle to establish a cadence for Owney's trot.  I gave this reference video to Jeff as a timing guide for his animation.  I also gave it to our composer, Ian Rees, as a timing guide for his music.

Looking at historical photos I painted the flat Owney fur textures for Jeff to wrap around the Maya model.  This was the only fur solution available to us since Augmented Reality cannot yet handle the heavy data required to move thousands of fur strands.

Jeff sent me animation dailies married to Ian's music, and we tweaked various drafts.

But Jeff's challenges went far beyond traditional animation.  He had to collaborate with the software techs who were providing us the playback tools which track our animation to the physical marker.  Not only were there strict restrictions on the amount of data, but different tracking software uses different rendering environments as well.  So Jeff had to keep simplifying the data load while laboring to preserve the quality of our character.  And he had to work within the software language parameters of each vendor.  Not easy.  But he has become a top practitioner in essentially outsmarting the medium - especially as we followed up the Owney AR release with other projects such the JFK stamp, a dynamic Captain America movie promo and more.  Randy Cartwright has become an invaluable consultant, brainstorming with Jeff on best new methods.

A web portal allowed us to view tests on how smoothly the animation moved in the AR software environment, how well the sound stayed in sync, and how well the animation locked to the physical marker as you moved it around.  There were a number of trouble-shooting passes to smooth things out.

Once we were happy, the Apple apps team ran Owney through his paces.  He got a clean bill of health!

On some of the projects I've used Photoshop plus 3D layers in After Effects to do a more elaborate animatic of how the final experience should appear.  This process has allowed some of the textures and layers I build during pre-viz to be incorporated as hybrid aspects of the Maya model and the final app.

Currently my directing duties at Imagineering are keeping me from participating full time, as I did for the first year of our AR venture.  But the AMUSME team is going strong and I keep throwing in my two cents until I can dive back in!  We've started collaborating with computer science faculty members at various universities.  So many breakthroughs are just about to happen and we are poised to secure a perch on the front of the next wave.  Fun will be had by all!"
Jerry and Stephen Michael Schwartz wrote a 69 page version all based on newspaper articles vetted by Smithsonian.  Free at the iTunes app store for iPad.

For those without an iPad there's a web version link.
Fred Cline did awesome illustrations in the classic Golden Book style.

And there's the companion Augmented Reality Owney we released earlier:

And finally, here's a video Jerry did of the "Owney" theme, using Fred Cline's illustrations.  The song was written by Stephen Michael Schwartz, performed by country singer Trace Adkins

-posted by Steve