Friday, 2 November 2012

Tai Chi Elements virtual training environment

[Thanks very much to my friend, and reader, Ashley for pointing this out to me]

An interesting kickstarter proposal for a new virtual environment for training in tai chi, is currently open for backers.

The idea seems to be that it's a virtual world where people can study 3D models of "Tai Chi masters" developed through motion capture technology. This is an interesting project and I've made a pledge. I have to say though that I'm sceptical as to what the real benefit of this might be, but am supportive of it as an interesting initiative.

The reason I'm sceptical is that they don't talk about things like being able to capture your movements directly using a kinect for example to match your body positions to that of the motion capture model. Without this feature, I can't really see what the benefit of the motion capture is. Tai chi is after all about subtle rotations of the body core/centre/dan-tien. The positions of your arms and legs are a secondary consideration, as they should follow the movement of your centre. The 3D animated model would potentially suffer from the drawback of capturing limb position very well but miss the movement of the centre. In other words, why not just watch a video (even a multi-angle video) of a real master, rather than removing yourself one step through this animated 3D model. Because it's an immersive 3D environment/game that's why - which I guess in itself is a benefit if you are into computer games.

So it's obviously not the all singing all dancing virtual in training environment that I would want. But as with most things in life, that would need to be developed over time. This project looks to be a good first step on that road, and perhaps if I help them out it might open up chances to include all these "more advanced" features in the future. I'm happy to put a little bit of money towards it, to reward their initiative. It's easy to talk (or write), I give respect to people who are actually trying to do.

PS.  I notice that some of the larger pledges include all-inclusive residential courses. Now I don't know anything about who is running these or what they might include, but giving them the benefit of the doubt that it will be a fair amount of tai chi tuition, these prices seem to be pretty good value. Hence even if you don't care in the slightest about the 3D game, it might be quite a cheap way to get some good residential tuition, or a tai chi retreat holiday!

EDIT: Having failed to get anywhere near their £75,000 funding target, they are trying again with an "incremental approach" and a radically reduced target at only 7% of the original goal. At the time of writing it looks to have attracted roughly the same level of interest (i.e. mainly people buying residential courses who they presumably know already in most cases).


  1. Thanks for mentioning the project on your blog.

    We relaunched the project this month with the focus on launching our main focus - the T'ai Chi training element of the environment first. We actually achieved that in just over a day - so the T'ai Chi training environment will be released in April next year.

    At present the motion capture has been used for capturing the movements from a senior instructor - we used a professional quality motion capture rig to do this so it captures the full extent of movements which has then been transposed onto the 3d model ingame. We have been looking at various methods of feedback for the users of the software - Kinect is a possibility, but of course this requires additional hardware which not everyone has, so we've gone down the route of video feedback. You can read a lot more on this here on our blog:

    We will be providing more information very soon on this aspect as it is vital to the success of the learning process to get feedback. So we're off shortly to record a better demo of how the whole process will work from filming yourself (after all mobile phones and cameras with video are very common - most people have something that they can record video on).

    And of course once you have got to a certain level then there are many training centres around the country plus the residential courses here in Cornwall, where people can come and interact with the teachers and other students within the style.

    On Kickstarter, having achieved our primary target, we're now moving onto our next funding target which will allow us to work more on the interactive exercises which are an essential element of the Tai Chi training!

    You can read all about it here:

    Some fantastic rewards for backers, including like you mention the inclusive residential training courses....

  2. Hey Spiralwise thanks for backing our project.

    T'ai Chi is something very close to my heart and I have been teaching it for thirty years. I got an enquiry from someone in Alice Springs and it got me thinking how I could help someone who was miles away.

    The advantages of using a 3d engine are basically that the moves are motion captured so they are spot on compared to viewing a real live teacher. You can rotate the camera around the model, speed up and slow down the animations and zoom in to pick up details. We have added a facility so people can film themselves on a webcam or smartphone then upload this to a semi-transparent viewscreen in the game then run the two side by side. It's a very useful way of comparing what you are learning. Of course it's not prefect but it's a hell of a lot better than using a book or DVD. It's a project we are in the process of development so we are looking into various avenues, the Kinect is another.

    The Kinect has clear advantages over a keyboard and mouse but there are also drawbacks. We have put the Kinect onto the back burner for the moment because we think that having to buy a Kinect is a bit prohibitive for the average person and we don't want to limit ourselves to making an Xbox only game. At the end of the day there is no substitute for training with real people and even a Kinect is not going to be able to reproduce this, what we want to do is show people how to train and encourage them to get a partner and do sticky hands with them.

    Regarding centre of gravity I think this is something that it's just as easy to pick up from watching a real teacher as it is from watching the in-game models. In our style we teach this by using stances with animal names. If I watch a video of someone in game I think I can tell if they are not shifting their weight properly and tell them how it should be done and point this out using the in game interface we are developing.

    We are really keen to develop the multiplayer element because T'ai Chi is not just about physical moves but developing Chi and learning about softness and going with the flow of the Tao is something that they can learn to apply in their daily lives and is of enormous benefit.

    We are taking an experimental approach and looking at various different options to make it as easy as possible for someone to learn who maybe hasn't got any other way of contacting a group and seeing the sequences.

    1. Hi Sadie, Elements, - I wish you every success and will monitor your project with interest! As tai chi is 95% practice and 5% learning, in principle I can imagine that an interactive remote learning tools could help a beginner develop in the early years (as mostly it's just about how much people practice). So in the spirit of friendly co-operation I'll explain why I'm skeptical about the 3D stuff.

      To my mind motion capture is a great method for a human to explain tai chi to a computer - motion capture is the translation between the human and computer worlds. When you want to explain to a human however there is obviously no need to do this translation, and it is only ever going to get in the way and make things worse. Far better to have a student learn direct from a video (i.e. a human) rather than the derived 3D model. The one claimed advantage seems to be that you can view from multiple angles. However every tai chi instructional video I've seen has shots from several angles anyway, so this would only be a very minor benefit, and outweighed by the more significant human->computer->human translation down side.

      The reason I like the (rudimentary) Kinect system, is that it is using the real benefit of motion capture. It is pointing the motion capture at the student. This allows the computer to provide instantaneous real-time feedback. It's like watching yourself in a mirror, only better as the teacher is overlaid and discrepancies highlighted (in realtime). That is something that is really new and exciting, where as books and videos (and 3D models to a lesser extend) have been around for a long time. I note you have some intended feature at least conceptually similar to this based on recorded video (which is good to see). So again what's the benefit of the 3D environment in this case when you're just comparing video?

      Clearly you are gamers at heart and are drawn to the idea of 3D worlds and good fun tai chi game - great and I respect that. On the other hand I think if you wanted to really create the best interactive learning tool you could, you would make it video based (perhaps even 3D TV based) and ditch the animation stuff. My concern for you project is that it is confusing as to whether you are offering a game (for a bit of harmless fun) or a (serious) learning environment. You seem to be trying to do both simultaneously which to my mind is hampering each of them. I would fully support you doing a game. I would fully support you doing a serious learning environment. I have difficulty supporting a confusing mish-mash of the two as it seems to compound their disadvantages rather than amplifying their benefits.

      Like I say I will monitor with interest, and sincerely hope I'm proved wrong!

  3. Yes, we are gamers, and we are T'ai Chi teachers. Something drew us to both things and we think we can see parallels. I would not want to make a serious learning environment, and neither are we making a game, we want to make something new which contains elements of both. It's confusing if you see it in the context of what has gone before, but as you say we'll just have to wait and see how it actually manifests over the coming months.

    1. Well I'm not a gamer so it's entirely possible I'm missing something! Here's hoping you are in fact visionaries :-)

      If you are interested in exploring the "motion capture of the users" stuff in the future, I would be delighted to collaborate with you, so just let me know. I have a software engineering, electronics and research background so many actually be of some practical use, rather than just waffling away on my blog :-)

  4. Tai Chi is safe for everyone, irrespective of age. The elderly in millions of homes across China perform Tai Chi because it improves balance and co-ordination between limb movements. Every year, hundreds of senior citizens suffer fractures and injuries due to fall caused by misbalance, learn tai chi is very helpful in such cases.