Perception Neuron Review: In-Depth With The $1,500 Motion Capture Suit

by Sky Nite • April 18th, 2016

When Perception Neuron popped up on Kickstarter promising a $1,500 motion capture suit, many people jumped at the opportunity, resulting in a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $500,000. Noitom, the company behind Perception Neuron, was able to raise a $5 million A-round of investment on top of that, and has worked furiously to perfect and manufacture the device since then. Now all Kickstarter orders and pre-orders have been filled, and the company raised another $20 million last November. But how good is the suit? I’ve been using Perception Neuron the last three months for my own VR game development, and here’s what I found.

The Kit

Perception Neuron uses up to 32 Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) to track the motion of your body. These IMUs have a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer, the measurements of which combine for an accurate picture of how your body moves. For $1,500 you get 32 IMU sensors (dubbed “Neurons”), two magnet protection cases, a wearable black suit in which to network those sensors (with an extra pair of gloves), and a sleek black case.

To put things in perspective, their closest competitor Xsens offers an IMU-based motion capture suit for about $10,000, and a motion capture camera setup is $15,000 minimum when you include software (with high-end setups running in the $40,000+ range). The advantage of IMUs is they are more portable and less expensive than a camera setup, but at the cost of positional accuracy (meaning multi-character interactions are harder to capture and the data will need more cleanup).

The Setup

Setup is fairly simple. Once you’ve downloaded and installed Noitom’s Axis Neuron software (a free and pro version of which are available on their site), you’re ready to construct the suit. This involves laying out and connecting the individual suit pieces (upper body, 2 arms, 2 legs), then taking the sensors out of their protective case and snapping them into the suite one by one. Due to the nature of the sensors, they can become demagnetized, and so must be kept away from any kind of magnetic field. This unfortunately includes computers, which I had to connect the device to, leading to the awkward situation of avoiding my computer while using the keyboard. To ensure the sensors’ protection, you need to store them in the special cases provided while not in use, meaning you must perform the tedious task of popping in and out the 32 Neurons every time you use the suit.

Because of this, I’ve found setup takes an average of 20-30 minutes, which isn’t too bad, but combined with 10-15 minutes for storage is enough that I’ll pre-plan my mocap sessions rather than throwing the suit on in a spur of the moment. If you’re using the suit wirelessly, you’ll need to buy a battery separately. The battery is also advised for a 32 Neuron setup, so I recommend you get one even if you plan to use the wired option (a battery that Noitom uses for tradeshows can be found here, but any battery capable of outputting 2.1 amps through USB will work).

Finally, with the suit on and the Neurons in their proper places (instruction for which can be found here), you’re ready to launch the Axis Neuron software and connect the device by either USB or Wifi. After 4 initialization poses you’re ready to capture.

Animation Recording

If you don’t like how the initialization poses matched up, it’s easy to redo them, and although unnecessary, I found myself resetting the pose initialization every other animation capture. To see what capture in their software looks like, take a look at this video:

Essentially you hit a record button, perform whatever movements you want captured, then save the file in their format. Once an animation is recorded, it can be exported in an FBX or BVH format.

Production

The results of your motion capture for actual production use will depend on several factors. In an ideal setup, you would have a character model with the exact same rig as the Perception Neuron default (you can change the capture rig, but that’s more expert than I’m capable of). It’s also possible to retarget the animation data to a different skeleton, but with varying results. In the video above I download a random rigged character model from the Unity Asset Store and retarget it to Unity’s default humanoid skeleton. As you can see, the character model’s prior skeleton had odd finger rigging and I messed up the finger calibration, leading to some awkwardness with the hands. Cleanup from an animator would help immensely, but overall the motion capture looks decent (especially considering the poor skeleton match and lack of a battery pack).

The Perception Neuron workflow is typically: Capture->Export as FBX->Import to Engine->Retarget->Apply to Character

Real-time Capture (edge case)

It’s also possible to use Perception Neuron directly in a game as a full-body input method. Noitom’s Axis software makes this easy to do with a Unity plugin (video below), also supporting Unreal and Motionbuilder. Although I’ve only tested the Unity plugin, I imagine the others are just as effective. Unfortunately the cost and setup time of the Perception Neuron makes its use as an input device extremely edge case, at least for now. It’s fun (I made a quick app where I could give myself a hug in VR), but cost, drift over time, and ease of setup are all areas that need improvement for Perception Neuron to be used real-time outside of research labs and specialized attractions.

Prototype Hardware

Using my pre-order kit (order #927), I’ve been unable to get wireless capture to work via wireless setup (they recommend using a cable to attach directly to the router during setup, which I havn’t tested since it’s impossible with my router location). This may be due to interference (which is why they recommend a cable) or may be due to faulty hardware, but regardless requiring a cable to your router for setup can make things a bit tricky depending on your situation. Additionally, the suit’s buttons for recording and zeroing position were faulty from the get go. These problems caused some inconveniences, but did not prevent me from getting the mocap animations I needed for my game development. Noitom made it clear before I purchased that I’d be getting prototype hardware, so these issues were not overly surprising. Additionally, Noitom covers the Perception Neuron under warranty for 12 months in which they will replace any defective hardware. At the time of receiving my kit I was in head-down development mode and needed to use the product immediately, but now that I’m less stressed I’ll probably get it repaired/replaced.

Final Verdict

At the end of the day, Perception Neuron is the best low-cost motion capture system ever made. For $1,500 you are getting a motion capture suit capable of putting your body movement onto a 3D character, making animation much more affordable for indie 3D developers. It may not be the data quality of a $40,000 setup, but working with an animator to do basic animation cleanup and proper rigging will allow you to achieve smooth, lifelike animation in your content for a fraction of the cost. The Perception Neuron is the perfect item for indie developers, animators, hobbyists, and machinimators.

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