It’s Alive in the Lab
November 18, 2013

It’s Alive in the Lab

CGW takes Autodesk Labs’ Leap Motion Plug-in for MotionBuilder under the microscope.

This fall, Autodesk unveiled a technology preview of a new Leap Motion Controller plug-in for Autodesk MotionBuilder - the 3D animation software for virtual production used to create blockbuster films like Avatar, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings franchise. Available online as a free download from Autodesk Labs, the plug-in is giving MotionBuilder users a chance to test out the popular controller with MotionBuilder 2014 and share their thoughts about the technology with Autodesk.

CGW Editor-in-Chief Karen Moltenbrey sat down with Autodesk's Hans Kellner, senior principal engineer, to get the inside scoop.

Please give us a brief overview of Autodesk Labs.

Autodesk Labs, part of the Office of the CTO, is a collaborative hub of innovation for new and emerging technologies. The team experiments and posts early conceptual stage prototypes, technology previews and experimental web services for new and existing users to provide direct feedback and help Autodesk evaluate and design better products and solutions informed by our users.

What is the Leap Motion Controller and how does it work?

The Leap Motion Controller is a small sensor, around half the size of a cell phone, which tracks the 3D motion of hands and fingers. This information is then used by applications for a more natural 3D user interaction.

How did the collaboration with Leap Motion come about?

We met the founders of Leap Motion early on and saw potential around integrating 3D motion control with Autodesk design solutions. From there we built early prototypes to understand potential utilities inherent to 3D design solutions. The Leap Motion plug-in for Autodesk Maya 2014 evolved directly from that work. Soon after, the plug-in for Autodesk MotionBuilder was born.

How does the new plug-in work with MotionBuilder 2014?

The plug-in evolved from the work on the Leap Motion Controller plug-in for Autodesk Maya 2014 - one of the first applications available to use the full 3D capabilities of the Leap Motion Controller. MotionBuilder's SDK allowed for a rapid prototype of the "device" plug-in. Using the plug-in is as simple as adding it into a MotionBuilder scene. At that point the hand and finger motion data streamed from the controller is available for animating models and recording for playback. A user can connect items in a scene to a hand or finger's position and rotation data. For example, connecting a finger to a control handle of a character's rig so that the finger animates the character.

What advantages can users expect from it at this time?

The plug-in allows MotionBuilder users to quickly and inexpensively begin using and experimenting with 3D natural interactions provided by the Leap Motion Controller.

Have you received feedback from the community thus far?

fter we released the plug-in for Autodesk Maya 2014, we received positive feedback as well as requests for a MotionBuilder version; back in August one user wrote on the Leap Motion Airspace store, 'Autodesk: PLEASE create a LeapMotion device for MotionBuilder.' This type of feedback helped motivate the development of the MotionBuilder plug-in. So far, feedback on the plug-in has been positive.

How are you collecting feedback and how will it be used?

Autodesk Labs is specifically set up to generate feedback and communicate with users. The feedback, which arrives through traditional online forums (e.g. email, discussion group) or social media, helps Autodesk to understand what has value in our customer's world and to drive the future of Autodesk innovation. The MotionBuilder plug-in is a direct example of feedback informing development. As I mentioned earlier, this direct feedback loop will hopefully lead to better products and solutions.

What differentiates a technology preview like this from an official Autodesk release?

A technology preview is a free working prototype, in the early conceptual stage, usually raw, unfinished, but usable.  'Mind the gap' as they say. It may be short lived or evolve into an actual product or a feature within a product. Community feedback plays an important part in the life of a preview. Autodesk 123D Catch, originally launched on Labs as Project Photofly, is a great example of a product beginning on Labs, 'graduating' and then evolving into a very popular app. We released the app about one year ago and users have already uploaded over 50,000 models captured in 123D Catch to our Gallery.

When is the plug-in available, where and for how long?

The plug-in is available through the Autodesk Labs website.

The plug-in for MotionBuilder will be available until January 31, 2014.

What is the next step for the Leap Motion MotionBuilder plug-in?

Users will help determine the future of the plug-in. We tell users, 'Trying it, liking it, and not telling us is the same as not liking it. We need to hear from you.' During the preview we will be collecting feedback that may lead to additional features and changes. After the preview has ended, the evaluation of the plug-in begins and a decision will be made if it will graduate from Labs.  I'm a little biased and hope to see that happen.

Can we expect to see similar Leap Motion plug-ins for other Autodesk applications from Labs in the future?  

It's always possible. If the community asks for support in another Autodesk application, Labs will take notice. We can't make promises, but I can say, the MotionBuilder plug-in arose because of feedback.

See a demo of the Leap Motion Controller being used to animate a gremlin's arms below.