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The magic of movement

Cite Magazine

Vicon may not be a household name, but its motion capture technologies have created spectacular special effects for iconic Blockbuster films such as Titanic, Star Wars, Beowulf and even Paddington Bear.

Paddington Bear
Credit: Press Association

Vicon Co-founder and WAIT alumnus, Dr Thomas Shannon, discusses what it’s like to be a part of such a fascinating and evolving company, and shares his passion for using motion capture technology to not only entertain, but also improve people’s quality of life.

Motion capture is the process of recording movement to create three-dimensional digital images. But how is it done? First, light reflecting markers are placed on joints over the body. Then the body’s movement is recorded by cameras and data fed into software, which creates a three-dimensional ‘skeleton’ of the movement. Vicon supplies this technology to customers in over 70 countries, with over half of its products going to the Americas last year.

“Fundamentally the motion capture technology lives in three different worlds,” says Shannon. “It lives in medicine for the measurement of children with cerebral palsy and Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, in the animation world where they want very subtle reproduction of human motion, and in the engineering world where they’re always after accuracy.”

Where one can employ Vicon’s technology is only restricted by the imagination. It has been used in NASA projects to study the Mars rover; transformed British band Coldplay into rambunctious gorillas for their music video, Adventure of a Lifetime; enhanced the character realism of chart-topping video game, Dead Island Riptide, and reimagined the performance of Sir Simon Rattle, conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Closer to home, Curtin’s School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science use Vicon’s cameras and software for a range of human-movement research and health applications.

A typical day at the office: Vicon staff try out their motion capture technology on a trampoline.

A typical day at the office: Vicon staff try out their motion capture technology on a trampoline.

Shannon says though it’s fantastic to witness the dazzling entertainment effects that Vicon has helped to create, what really “floats his boat” is the technology’s clinical uses, such as improving the mobility of children with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy affects 17 million people worldwide, and is the most common physical disability in childhood.

“When a child [with cerebral palsy] reaches a certain point in their life, the amount of energy that they need to walk can sometimes be less than what they have available,” says Shannon. “Their body is not sufficient enough to carry on and so they have to sit down and become wheelchair bound, and then there are the challenges that follow on from that.”

Vicon has created a motion capture system that analyses a patient’s walking gait and body movement. This information, together with data from physical examinations, gives clinicians a detailed insight into the best course of treatment and therapy for the patient, with outcomes that at least maintain or improve their qualiy of life.

“What these machines do is assist in helping clinicians to make decisions that can improve the efficiency of how a patient walks,” says Shannon.

Vicon’s equipment was used to create the special effects for Marvel’s Dr Strange. Credit: Framestore and Marvel

For an exta special effect, just add Benedict Cumberbatch. Credit: Framestore and Marvel

For an exta special effect, just add Benedict Cumberbatch. Credit: Framestore and Marvel

Always being interested in understanding how things work, Shannon completed a degree in Applied Science at WAIT in 1973 and worked at Royal Perth Hospital as a physicist and an engineer, where he developed ways to measure physiological functions within the human body. He returned to WAIT six years later to study a Master of Applied Science in Physics and further his research skills.

“The human body fascinates me as an engineer because many of the ways that the human body works, an engineer interprets [data] in a slightly different way than maybe a clinician would, so there’s that symbiosis between the viewpoint of the engineer-type of person like me, and the clinician,” says Shannon. “It’s a really lovely fusion that can assist both parties in understanding what is an immensely complex organism.”

Shannon was awarded a scholarship to work with Vicon in 1984 to research spinal deformity in children and gain industry experience. But what was meant to be a short-term stay in the university city of Oxford, England, turned into a life-long profession for the alumnus, and today Vicon is a flourishing arm of Oxford Metrics PLC, where Shannon is also a Group Director.

“Vicon already existed in a much larger company called Oxford Instruments, and they were better known for working on magnets and MRI,” explains Shannon on how he came to be its cofounder. “Vicon was a tiny little company on the corner, and when I was there on my scholarship, Oxford Instruments decided to sell Vicon – they had a developed product but the company was failing.”

Working with a young patient at Denver Children's Hospital

Working with a young patient at Denver Children’s Hospital.

However, Shannon and a few of his colleagues saw the potential of Vicon’s technologies and bought the company. Their first clients were the University of Virginia, who used their technology to measure the gait of sheep, and a children’s hospital in Boston. These buyers gave Shannon and his partners the idea to focus their market on clinical gait analysis.

“The company then started growing quite rapidly after that point,” he says.

After 34 years at Vicon, Shannon still holds genuine drive and passion for the world of motion capture. He is overwhelmingly modest when it comes to discussing his achievements and creations at the company, but that’s because he’s confident he’s got more magic to create yet.

“I have no intention on retiring until I’m asked to leave,” he says. “They’re stuck with me in my lab until they take the key away.”

Challenging the market

Vicon entered the special effects industry almost by chance. Director Stephen Frears was in the middle of producing the 1996 film, Mary Reilly, a movie based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but there was a problem – he wanted to make Hyde burst out of Jekyll’s chest, but had no idea how. The new managing director of Vicon had a son interning on the film set. He piped up that his father ‘had this little company in Oxford; they’d know how to do it.’ Vicon created the effect for the film, and was soon asked to do the effects for Titanic.

It’s Vicon’s ability to innovate their market and create technologies that can be applied across diverse industries – from health sciences to entertainment to engineering – that has seen it become a leading developer of motion capture products. Vicon has won multiple awards, including its first Queens Award in 2001 for Export and Innovation, as well as an Emmy and an Academy Award for technical achievement.

“We live on our wit,” says Shannon on Vicon’s success. “The major challenge is that we have to be faster, better quicker than anybody else. That’s not only a challenge, it’s also an opportunity because it means that we’re never standing still, and it means that the customer is getting what they want from us. That’s what keeps our juices flowing.”

For those considering working in the world of motion capture, Shannon says be prepared to constantly learn and work hard.

“There’s a new challenge everyday. You’ve got to be ahead of the game, you’ve got to really understand what you’re talking about or know people who do who can help you learn. You’ve really got to have both feet in the water and keep carrying on. And that’s exciting stuff.”


Alumnus Snapshot

Name: Dr Thomas Shannon

Studied: Bachelor of Applied Science (WAIT), Master of Applied Science (Physics) (WAIT)

Related courses: Bachelor of Science (Physics), Bachelor of Engineering (Electronic and Communication Engineering)

Graduated: 1973 (Undergraduate), 1986 (Master)

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