When the iPhone X first came out, everyone had fun using the device’s front-facing camera to make Animoji. But it turns out, the device’s facial capture abilities aren’t just good for making cartoon pigs sing. They could also potentially be a powerful and inexpensive tool for game developers.
Finnish studio Next Games, which is currently working on a location-based augmented reality game called The Walking Dead: Our World, has built a tool that makes it possible to capture facial data using the iPhone X’s camera, and then use that data to animate a character in a game. During a demo of the technology, I watched Next creative director Mikael Achren use the iPhone X’s depth-sensing front camera to record some facial movements. He then tapped a button on-screen and transferred that information to an instance of the game engine Unity running on his laptop. Within seconds, the same facial expressions he had recorded were animating a version of Walking Dead character Daryl in the game engine.
Facial capture technology isn’t new for games, but it’s typically a very expensive process. It requires specialized equipment and studios, putting it out of reach for most small developers. While the iPhone X might not be as accurate as a full-blown facial capture rig, the results I saw were still impressive, and they were accomplished at a fraction of the cost. Instead of a specialized studio, you just need a smartphone. Achren says that the version of the tool I saw was built in a few weeks. Apple offers developers access to the iPhone X’s facial capture abilities through an application programming interface (API), meaning other game studios could potentially build similar tools themselves.
In addition to using the technology to make the main cast of Our World look more realistic, Next Games is also using the tool for a player-facing social feature that sounds almost as fun as Animoji. Our World players will be able to record animations of in-game zombies, that they can then share with everyone else playing the game. This feature, naturally, will be exclusive to the iPhone X version of the game.
If tools like this catch on, it could be another way of democratizing aspects of game development, turning a previously expensive and time-consuming task into something much more within reach of the average developer. You’ll be able to see the results fairly soon: The Walking Dead: Our World is expected to launch in the second quarter of this year.
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