Jim Henson hears the Call of Duty

Venerable puppet outfit will provide virtual animatronics for the console edition of Activision's WWII shooter.

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Soldiers rarely smile while getting shot at. However, smiling is one of the emotions that the soldiers in Call of Duty: Finest Hour will be able to express, thanks to a new development system from game developer Spark and the Jim Henson Company, Hollywood's famed puppet and animatronic shop.

Finest Hour is the upcoming PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube action game based on last year's smash PC first-person shooter, Call of Duty. However, Finest Hour is not a port of the PC game, but rather an original new game in the franchise. As such, it will feature a new plot, new characters, new levels, and new campaigns.

That said, Activision and Spark promise that the spirit of the PC version will remain the same. Call of Duty's motto is "In war, no one fights alone," and the PC version was lauded for delivering the feeling that you were fighting the major battles of World War II alongside fellow soldiers who you could relate to.

For Finest Hour, the developers at Spark wanted to humanize the soldiers you'll fight alongside, mainly by using facial animation. Traditionally, trying to develop realistic facial animation is a long and technical process, but Spark CEO Craig Allen was able to draw on his experience as former general manager of Jim Henson Interactive to develop a much easier way.

This new way is called the Henson Digital Performance System. It's derived from the elaborate tools and techniques that the puppeteers at the Jim Henson Company use to control the facial animations of giant animatronic puppets. Basically, a puppeteer wears what looks like a giant glove connected to a lot of servo motors, and the way the puppeteer moves the glove controls everything from the puppet's eyes, mouth, cheeks and more. What the HDPS, or the Performance System, does, is essentially replace those mechanical servo motors with virtual ones, allowing the puppeteer to manipulate in real-time the facial animations of a 3D computer character.

The result is that the Performance System allows the development team to easily and inexpensively record huge amounts of facial animation in real-time. Before, trying to animate a character's face during an important moment would have required days to produce a minute's worth of animation, the Performance System can do the same thing in a minute. "The Performance System allows you the luxury to experiment," Allen said.

The difference between standard facial animations and those created with the Performance System is considerable. Skilled puppeteers, according to Allen, have years of experience capturing the subtle movements of the human face, and so the result is more lifelike and human characters.

While other companies, such as Valve, are investing to develop new technology that effectively does the same thing by modeling all the muscles and bones in a human face, Allen says that the HDPS will offer developers a relatively simple and flexible solution. Naturally, the Jim Henson Company is looking to team up with other developers, and it will exhibit the HDPS at the Nvidia booth at E3. Meanwhile, Spark and Activision plan to unveil Call of Duty: Finest Hour--and the lifelike facial animations in the game--for the first time at the show.

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