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.”

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Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”