Published: 10:30, February 2, 2024 | Updated: 17:01, February 2, 2024
PDF View
Can motion capture make the cut?
By Gennady Oreshkin

Chinese martial arts scholars, educators and technology talents have joined forces to develop a database and training modules aided by motion capture. Gennady Oreshkin weighs the pros and cons.

The Chinese word wushu is a collective term for various styles of competitive martial arts. Some of these traditions could be traced back to military fighting techniques used during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220). The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) saw the emergence of distinct forms of Chinese martial arts in areas corresponding to present-day Guangdong province, the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region and the cities of Hong Kong and Macao. The forms typical of these locations are known to have evolved from the Lingnan School of martial arts, which flourished during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). These combat styles are especially associated with the mid-19th century rebellions against the monarchy. 

Like many other traditional performance forms, Lingnan martial arts are likely to lose their authentic structure over time. The steadily declining number of students suggests that soon there may not be enough practitioners of the craft to carry on the legacy. 

READ MORE: Embracing kung fu without borders

A possible way of attracting new learners is by adapting Lingnan martial arts to digital-era training tools — imparting the know-how to Gen Z in a language they can relate to. With that end in mind, a group of martial arts scholars, educators and technology talents have joined forces, trying to reinvent Lingnan martial arts training for a new generation of students. The idea is to explore how technology can transform training, choreography and performance of Lingnan martial arts’ various forms. 

Hing Chao, director of the Institute of Chinese Martial Studies, believes the use of motion-capture technology can help break down complex martial arts movements into simpler, easy-to-follow sequences. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Speaking to digital natives

At a recent event held at the City University of Hong Kong’s Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre, the Institute of Chinese Martial Studies showcased some of the highlights from its experiments with teaching Lingnan martial arts by using digital tools. It served as an introduction to the ways in which ICMS is trying to “transform Lingnan martial arts as a movement and performing art through digital pedagogy”.

Titled Hidden/Manifest, the ICMS show is the result of a two-year-long research project — an offshoot of the Lingnan Martial Arts Elite Training Program, which schools young instructors, besides collaborating with choreographers and performers interested in incorporating elements from Chinese martial arts into their creations.

The show features both a documentation of the attempts to devise new, and more efficient, ways of training Chinese martial arts using advanced motion-capture technology — a series of 3D computer animations created by recording the movements of martial artists via sensors — as well as live demonstrations of how this works. 

Hong Kong Baptist University academic Jeffrey Shaw built a Linear Navigator that serves as an interactive digital library of key martial arts movements. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

ICMS Director Hing Chao believes that the use of motion-capture technology makes it easier for students to grasp the complex martial arts techniques. “Technology provides new analytical perspectives on the martial arts and helps us understand the complex principles involved, not the least through the use of animated annotations that can help break down complex movements into easy-to-follow sequences, communicating in a way that is visually direct and intuitive,” he says. 

Chao hopes that motion-capture technology can also help to establish a comprehensive training system that unites all the different Lingnan martial arts styles, thus allowing the performers to “mix and match” elements from different families. The first step toward achieving this is to put together a digital library of animated movements. Hong Kong Baptist University academic Jeffrey Shaw’s invention, Linear Navigator, demonstrates how this could be done.

Choreographer Ong Tze-shen says it is difficult to ensure that the moves students pick up from digital learning guides are accurate. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Shaw’s installation at the Hidden/Manifest exhibition, is essentially a movable screen, attached to two rails on a wall. “It enables video content to be distributed along the trajectory of its movement, allowing the viewers to interactively explore the database of various martial arts-performances placed there,” Shaw explains. He adds that the piece lets viewers explore an archive of major martial arts performances and visually explains the inner dynamics of martial arts movements. 

However, while Linear Navigator serves as a comprehensive library of key martial arts movements covering a range of styles (each viewable from different angles), it can replicate only the basic martial arts movements and not complex sequences. 

A scene from the Hidden/Manifest show appears on the Jeffrey Shaw-created iDome, a device for projecting 180-degree immersive videos. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Digital limits

Using digital animation to store martial arts knowledge has its downsides. According to “The Role of Casting Methods in Preserving Traditional Martial Arts through Motion Capture Technology”, a paper published by the Multimedia University of Malaysia in July, the technology “primarily focuses on capturing physical movements, often resulting in the loss of critical metadata associated with the cultural context and historical significance of the movements”. Gaps like these, the paper adds, “can lead to incomplete or inaccurate interpretations of the captured data, undermining the reliability and authenticity of the preserved cultural heritage”. It also goes on to explain why modern technology may not be able to capture complex and fast-paced sequences accurately. 

Advocates of motion capture argue that the technology makes combat training more accessible. It is available at a fraction of the price of training under the supervision of a martial arts exponent in a traditional setup. A digital library sounds like a boon for those who want to explore martial arts but cannot commit to the hours offered by training centers. For those who might want to limit human contact while learning the craft, motion capture seems the ideal solution. 

Institute of Chinese Martial Studies Director Hing Chao (right) meets the guests attending the show. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

However, the fact remains that physical contact and interaction between students and instructors is crucial to learning the techniques with accuracy and understanding the dynamics of combat. Students who rely solely on motion capture may not be able to fully experience the intensity and impact of real combat. Moreover, the techniques of maneuvering internal energy and breath control, which are vital to mastering the moves, cannot be replicated through motion capture. 

Ong Tze-shen, who choreographed the performance in which the inner journey of a martial artist is brought to life in Hidden/Manifest, sounds doubtful about the efficacy of motion capture or virtual-reality tools in martial arts training. He says digital guides might not be quite as efficient as their human counterparts in ensuring that the students have picked up the key moves accurately. 

The Ong Tze-shen-choreographed, Lingnan martial arts-inspired dance piece in Hidden/Manifest is performed with a simultaneous digital display, demonstrating how motion capture works. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Ong Tze-shen-choreographed, Lingnan martial arts-inspired dance piece in Hidden/Manifest is performed with a simultaneous digital display, demonstrating how motion capture works. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

However, this is a problem that could probably be resolved over time. The use of motion capture is common in the world of gaming. Since the technologies used in that field are getting steadily better at accurately replicating human movements, there’s no reason why the same cannot happen when it comes to martial arts. 

ALSO READ: Mind your body, lift your soul

As of the present, there’s no saying whether the use of motion capture in training modules will inspire more young people to give Lingnan martial arts a shot. However, the efforts being made in that direction could be counted as a significant first step, which will, hopefully, lead to more-evolved digital educational apparatuses to aid martial arts training.