New software lets novices turn sketches into sophisticated 3D animations

New software developed by Moka Studio and EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne), called Mosketch, will allow anyone to create professional-grade 3D animation without sophisticated training or Hollywood-level budgets.

As it currently stands, 3D modelling and animation requires a lot of time, money and training. This precludes many with an interest or idea from breaking into the field, placing unfortunate limits on a field that has huge potential in a variety of areas.

Mosketch aims to counter this entry ceiling by delivering performance equal to that of the more expensive animation applications, but with an accessibility that allows artists with no 3D knowledge whatsoever to enter the field and use the software.

“The strength of our software is that it easily transforms 2D sketches into 3D, letting artists create 3D animation seamlessly and naturally,” said Benoît Le Callennec, co-founder and CEO of Moka Studio.

Images courtesy of EFPL

Images courtesy of EPFL

The software works by bringing together two major methods of animation: direct kinematics and inverse kinematics. Direct kinematics has artists change each joint of a character individually, while inverse kinematics allows artists to guide any part of the character’s body. Unlike current market heavyweights, Mosketch allows users to easily switch between these methods and model a complete posture with only a few sketches.

Perhaps the true innovation of the software, however, is the way in which it calculates 3D characters’ postures. Mosketch’s enhanced algorithm runs in parallel, making it 10 to 150 times faster than other programs and letting artists shape a character’s posture in real-time.

This focus on the artistry side of things extends to other areas of the program as well; Mosketch is purposefully designed with flexibility in mind, avoiding the intense preparation and complex control rigs needed with a lot of other software.

“Thanks to our advanced mathematical models, artists can animate any 3D character without a lot of up-front work. That makes our software much easier to use,” said Ronan Boulic, head of the immersive interaction research group at EPFL.

Perhaps the most exciting potential of the software however, is its possibilities in research applications outside of standard 3D modelling. The software could be used for both planning in robotics and developments in virtual reality.

Due to the time investment usually required, developing content for virtual reality can prove a real challenge. This new software will vastly enhance the field due to the simple fact of the efficiency its algorithm lends to creators.

By focusing on accessibility to artists, regardless of previous experience, Mosketch may serve to massively increase the range of those involved in virtual reality, and their creations.

“A key challenge in virtual reality is shortening the time lapse between a user’s movement and the corresponding shift in what he sees,” Boulic said. “The algorithm we developed for Mosketch can speed interactions in complex modelling environments, such as virtual prototypes for manufacturing or complicated tasks for robotics, or even for developing humanoid robots.”

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.