A UK animation company has come up with the first

A UK animation company has come up with the first "production ready" facial animation system to allow motion capture without the intrusion of pads or sensors, writes Sam Espensen.

Stockport-based Image Metrics is offering three customised services for the film, gaming, TV and animation sectors that use a model-based system of image analysis to model actors or animate characters.

Previously, facial animation techniques have been hampered by the invasive nature of the motion-capture systems - an actor's face needs to be covered with "capture markers" before the technology can interpret facial features. This is costly, both in time and money, and has failed to attract professional acting talent.

Televirtual's Tim Child, who builds high-end virtual humans and is developing a new version of ITV1's 1980s virtual reality kids show Knightmare, said that he believed that although research in this area had been well documented for several years, no one had come up with a "proper, production-ready system". He added that other companies may now emulate the technology.

The three different systems are Realface (for real-time avatars or 3D-animated characters), Gameface (facial animation for games) and Filmface (facial animation for 3D TV and film-makers) and are based on Image Metrics Optasia technology.

As well as drama and feature applications, Child said that the first users of this technology will be the music industry: "we've already seen virtual pop groups, but with this system operating at its best you can get the jaw working properly because it holds onto vowels, and get all the expressions. This would allow talent factory people to own an act in a way not possible before." The technology also has another application useful for virtual advertising, as it can be used for logo tracking and replacement.

One of the first companies to use the technology is the Shakespeare Company of Amsterdam, which is using Filmface to create a virtual Shakespeare to perform all 154 of his sonnets. A major UK broadcaster is also said to be in talks with the company.