It all started with a couple of kids and a remarkable idea, which eventually spawned two terrifying demon dogs and their master. This concept is transforming the haunt industry and could eventually change how theme parks and other entertainment businesses approach animated mechanical electronics (animatronics).
Here’s the behind-the-scenes story of how this all came to be:
The boys, 6-year-old Mark and 10-year-old Jack, fell in love with Travel Channel’s Making Monsters, a TV program that chronicles the creation of lifelike animatronic creatures. After seeing their dad’s work with Kinect for Windows at the Minneapolis-based Microsoft Technology Center, they connected the dots and dreamed up the concept: wouldn’t it be awesome if Dad could use his expertise with the Kinect for Windows motion sensor to make better and scarier monsters?
So “Dad”—Microsoft developer and technical architect Todd Van Nurden—sent an email to Distortions Unlimited in Greeley, Colorado, offering praise of their work sculpting monsters out of clay and adjustable metal armatures. He also threw in his boys’ suggestion on how they might take things to the next level with Kinect for Windows: Imagine how much cooler and more realistic these monsters could be if they had the ability to see you, hear you, anticipate your behavior, and respond to it. Imagine what it means to this industry now that monster makers can take advantage of the Kinect for Windows gesture and voice capabilities.
Two months passed. Then one day, Todd received a voice mail message from Distortions CEO Ed Edmunds expressing interest. The result: nine months of off-and-on work, culminating with the debut of a Making Monsters episode detailing the project on Travel Channel earlier today, October 21 (check local listings for show times, including repeat airings). The full demonic installation can also be experienced firsthand at The 13th Floor haunted house in Denver, Colorado, now through November 10.
To get things started, Distortions sent Van Nurden maquettes—scale models about one-quarter of the final size—to build prototypes of two demon dogs and their demon master. Van Nurden worked with Parker, a company that specializes in robotics, to develop movement by using random path manipulation that is more fluid than your typical robot and also is reactive and only loosely scripted. The maquettes were wired to Kinect for Windows with skeletal tracking, audio tracking, and voice control functionality as a proof of concept to suggest a menu of possible options.
Distortions was impressed. “Ed saw everything it could do and said, ‘I want all of them. We need to blow this out’,” recalled Van Nurden.
Todd Van Nurden prepares to install the Kinect for Windows sensor in the demon’s belt
The full-sized dogs are four feet high, while the demon master stands nearly 14 feet. A Kinect for Windows sensor connected to a ruggedized Lenovo M92 workstation is embedded in the demon’s belt and, after interpreting tracking data, sends commands to control itself and the dogs via wired Ethernet. Custom software, built by using the Kinect for Windows SDK, provides the operators with a drag-and-drop interface for laying out character placement and other configurable settings. It also provides a top-down view for the attraction’s operator, displaying where the guests are and how the creatures are tracking them.
“We used a less common approach to processing the data as we leveraged the Reactive Extensions for .NET to basically set up push-based Linq subscriptions,” Van Nurden revealed. “The drag-and-drop features enable the operator to control the place-space configuration, as well as when certain behaviors begin. We used most of the Kinect for Windows SDK managed API with the exception of raw depth data.”
The dogs are programmed to react very differently if approached by an adult (which might elicit a bark or growl) versus a child (which could prompt a fast pant or soft whimper). Scratching behind a hound’s ears provokes a “happy dog” response—assuming you can overcome your fear and get close enough to actually touch one! Each action or mood includes its own set of kinesthetic actions and vocal cues. The sensor quietly tracks groups of people, alternating between a loose tracking algorithm that can calculate relative height quickly when figures are further away and full skeletal tracking when someone approaches a dog or demon, requiring more detailed data to drive the beasts’ reactions.
The end product was so delightfully scary that Van Nurden had to reassure his own sons when they were faced with a life-sized working model of one of the dogs. “I programmed him, he’s not going to hurt you,” he comforted them.
Fortunately, it is possible to become the demons’ master. If you perform a secret voice and movement sequence, they will actually bow to you.
Lisa Tanzer, executive producer for Making Monsters, has been following creature creation for two years while shooting the show at Distortions Unlimited. She was impressed by how much more effective the Kinect for Windows interactivity is than the traditional looped audio and fully scripted movements of regular animatronics: “Making the monsters themselves is the same process—you take clay, sculpt it over an armature, mold it, paint it, all the same steps,” she said. “The thing that made this project Distortions did for 13th Floor so incredible and fascinating was the Kinect for Windows technology.”
“It can be really scary,” Tanzer reported. “The dogs and demon creature key into people and actually track them around the room. The dog turns, looks at you and whimpers; you go ‘Oh, wow, is this thing going to get me?’ It’s just like a human actor latching on to somebody in a haunted house but there’s no human, only this incredible technology.”
“Incorporating Kinect for Windows into monster making is very new to the haunt industry,” she added. “In terms of the entertainment industry, it’s a huge deal. I think it’s a really cool illustration of where things are going.”
Kinect for Windows team