Virtually Human creates simulation from dance

In an era when the appeal of a video game is measured in terms of its realism, and movies such as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within use an entirely CG cast, Toronto's Virtually Human has developed a unique approach to replicating human movement in animated characters.

In an era when the appeal of a video game is measured in terms of its realism, and movies such as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within use an entirely CG cast, Toronto’s Virtually Human has developed a unique approach to replicating human movement in animated characters.

Virtually Human’s self-titled 3D human simulation software engine borrows from the Laban system of movement notation used in dance, medicine and drama for analyzing the structure, components and details of an action. The company’s founder, Diane Thomson, herself comes from a background in ballet.

Sony Computer Entertainment recently accepted Virtually Human into its tools and middleware program for PlayStation 2, providing developers of games for the platform with a tool facilitating simulation.

‘What we’re able to offer the game developer is the ability to have their characters look and move like real people,’ says Thomson. ‘Because Virtually Human’s toolbox is combinatorial, a character can be programmed within a game, or a player can control the character in a game environment.’

Although Thomson sees her software engine as perfectly suited to film and TV production, she acknowledges the greater demand from the gaming industry.

The company is also a third-party conductor partner with cross-town 3D animation software provider Alias|Wavefront, dating back to 2000.

‘Our engine is an enhancement to Alias|Wavefront’s Maya, so any individual who owns Maya has access to the Virtually Human engine as well,’ Thomson explains.

According to Thomson, one of the key attributes of Virtually Human is that it reduces animation time by up to 50%, its efficiency optimized by a user-friendly interface. The engine runs in realtime and makes no use of stop-motion animation. ‘It blends to motion capture, which is the closest you can come to human simulation,’ Thomson says.

On the film and TV side, Thomson sees Virtually Human as a particularly cost-efficient and flexible alternative to stunt work, which can often cost, crew and talent included, up to $50,000 a pop in the real world.

‘Virtually Human could do that same work for $15,000, and there is no risk to a human,’ she says. ‘The director can then take the footage and do the edits from any angle.’

Virtually Human’s creative and technology arms are made up of artists and engineers specializing in the graphics, bio-medical, robotics, physics and electrical fields. Most of Thomson’s engineers are picked from software companies such as A|W, especially when the biz is experiencing a dry cycle.

One of Thomson’s creations is a ‘virtual human’ called Sabia, who teaches about office ergonomics in 30 one-minute webisodes. Virtually Human has also been put to work at forensic choreography presentations.

-www.virtually-human.com