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This motion capture system for cars lets a vehicle morph in real time

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Augmented reality for filmmaking

If you’ve ever wondered how exactly car commercials get made — like how footage is captured of brand new, seemingly expensive vehicles driving dangerously fast — then visual effects studio The Mill would like to introduce you to the Cyclops. That’s the Grecian code name for a multi-purpose rig that combines a decked out off-roading dune buggy called the Blackbird with some cutting-edge camera, editing, and graphics rendering technology. The end result is a vehicle on the road that can be transformed through effects into any model of any car.

Here at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, The Mill and Epic Games, which makes the Unreal Engine 4 rendering software the Cyclops relies on, are showing off a new version of the rig. Alongside Chevrolet, who’s here admittedley to plug the new 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, the Cyclops now goes even further by overlaying the virtual car in real time.

The Cyclops system renders a virtual car and overlays it over the Blackbird in real time.

You can even edit features of the digital vehicle, like changing the color or swapping out an entirely different make, from a phone. The Mill and Epic say they’re using Google’s Tango augmented reality tech to do so. It lets you look through the viewfinder of a Tango-equipped smartphone camera to see and tinker with a life-size version of the car.

In an onstage demonstration yesterday, Chevy marketing chief Sam Russell showed how he could use the AR system on a smartphone with Tango tech to change the color of the Camaro. Any changes made to the Camaro on the phone would then translate to the vehicle being shown in a looping demonstration video.

The car editing software, shown on the right screen, instantly changes the vehicle in the video on the left screen.

Typically, even with a sophisticated system like the Cyclops, the car you’re hoping to show off in a commercial or piece of marketing material would have to be created in post-production. That’s a laborious process, and a filmmaker might end up with an unfixable shot that they don’t realize is unusable until days or weeks after the shoot. Now, however, the Cyclops can render the desired car in real time, so it not only shows up in the raw clips, but also through the viewfinder of the camera while its filming the footage.

Because the Blackbird is essentially a modular stand-in for any car, it can be changed easily. “We can put the wheels on of any car manufacturer. We can adjust suspension within minutes,” says Alistair Thompson, the head of The Mill’s creative partnership team. “Everything is completely reactive — the lighting, the reflections. Now you have the Blackbird, but you also have the virtual vehicle you need it to be on set.”

The Blackbird is the foundation of a mo-cap system for cars created by digital effects studio The Mill.
The camera and tracking system on the Blackbird allows the software to analyze its surroundings and map the virtual car.