By Jaakko Saari
Going back for almost two decades, I have variety of memories creating and rendering digital humans, all the way back to the days of NewTek Lightwave 3D. Rigging especially during those days was a highly specialized task, but so was the skin shading as well as getting hair to behave somewhat believably. It was indeed a marathon of a task, uncanny valley lurking always at every corner. Will the hair behave correctly, and what about the eyes? What about different lighting conditions? And PBR only existed in the mind of a Disney TA.
Enter 2021 and Epic released first version of MetaHuman Creator. It was a stunning demo that caught instant attention of the industry.
Early Access MetaHuman Creator was fun and convincing. Operating in the cloud instead of local machine, it is possible to enjoy this with very light machine such as Macbook air.
The possibilities for fascinating demos became apparent early on, – especially with LiveLink; the technology based on ARkit that allows facial motion to be captured from iOS device and then creating convincing face and head movement without any additional setup. There simply was nothing like it.
What captured my attention was definitely the quality of the skin and the way how you were able to see the result instantly.
The technical setup of MetaHuman assets is done with such sophistication and attention to detail. For example small fuzz hair on the skin can be later adjusted in engine. But also is the rig that drives the experience that can be imported to Maya and thus the animations can be done in Maya and exported as .FBX clips to the engine. Additional script is still necessary to get control handles for animator in Maya, but it is very, very straight forward.
MetaHuman flies over the uncanny valley with an ease of a high end business jet for the most part. Especially movement of the eyes and the hair samples that work with the stunning Unreal Engine groom system that is real-time and is so very convincing, especially if you tweak the settings. And the quality of the fully convincing sub surface scattering of the skin. Jaw dropping is understatement.
Mouth is still difficult, especially more extreme expressions such as laughing. But the way how it misses the ultimate realism is not bad way to miss it. People smiling or putting their tongues out look genuinely amusing and still attractive, although at those extreme expressions you can tell it is CG. It is not bad and seeing what kind of wind Epic has under their wings, this will most definitely improve over time.
MetaHumans are in high demand right now. Obvious games and film VFX market aside, anything from AI tech demos to movie extras and virtual assistants. I think for medical company tech demos MetaHumans can be extremely usable and can replace real human actors and there are no privacy concerns. But also, take for example a promotional video of a Caterpillar excavator. Now unrealized concept CG models can be driven by a believable CG human driver. I think it the possibilities are endless.
Video based content is one thing, but what really opens up the possibilities is to engage these characters into interactive apps and content. These can be used for anything from aerospace industry demos to virtual production stage.
Custom Setup Challenges
The clothing presets of MetaHumans from MetaHuman Creator are limited. Adding clothing to characters still require the old fashioned cloth rigging setup in DCC like Maya. The clothes can also be simulated in number of ways either in Houdini or Marvelous Designer. I wish there was also more hair options out of the box. But luckily Unreal Engine groom assets are very flexible and it is possible to create custom hair for MetaHuman using tools like Ornatrix plugin for example.
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