NaturalMotion: from neural research to Grand Theft Auto

NaturalMotion is the most successful company ever to emerge from the Department of Zoology, and a prime example of how ‘pure’ research can lead in unexpected directions. The company’s founder, Torsten Reil, began working on computer simulations of human nervous systems as a DPhil student in the Department, with the aim of understanding how these systems controlled movement. His programmes used genetic algorithms which enabled animations to interact with and respond to their virtual environment. As they did so they evolved their own way of moving, resulting in highly realistic simulations of human and animal movement.

Reil was quick to realise that these programmes had significant commercial potential, since they could be used to improve animation in films and computer games – both huge global markets. Existing animation technology such as key framing and motion capture had limitations: it resulted in characters which tended to move in predictable and stereotypical ways, and it was also time-consuming and expensive. Reil’s technology, called Dynamic Motion Synthesis (DMS), provided a tool with which companies could create more lifelike and interactive characters in a cost-effective way.

DMS uses ‘virtual brains’ to control physical simulations, and is able to artificially evolve the parameters of the neural network to make an animated character perform tasks such as walking or swimming. Instead of merely appearing to evolve through clever animation, the artificial intelligence embedded in the character means that it actually does evolve and learn through interactions with the game user and the virtual environment.

Reil founded NaturalMotion in 2001 with the help of Oxford University Innovation (formally Isis Innovation Ltd), the University of Oxford’s technology transfer company. Initial funding was provided by the Oxford University Challenge Seed Fund. Oxford University Innovation also supported a patent application, which was granted in 2012, and introduced NaturalMotion to further investment from business angels. From 2008 the University became a shareholder in the company through OSEM (Oxford Spin-out Equity Management) and continued to invest in its development.

Endorphin, the first DMS-based product developed by NaturalMotion, captured the imagination of the entertainment industry including major motion pictures. The company went on to create Euphoria, a groundbreaking 3D character simulation engine for games. Euphoria was quickly picked up and used extensively in games for Playstation, Xbox 360 and many others. An important breakthrough came in 2007 when NaturalMotion won a large contract with Rockstar Games, makers of Grand Theft Auto, one of the most successful games series of all time.

Torsten Reil © Isis Innovation Ltd

More recently the company has developed its own smartphone-based games. Its first ‘free-to-play’ game, My Horse, has been downloaded over 11 million times. In 2012 Clumsy Ninja was showcased at Apple’s iPhone 5 launch event; it was the first mobile game driven by Euphoria, using technology that until relatively recently would have required a supercomputer.

By 2014 NaturalMotion employed around 260 people in four offices in the UK and US, and in February it was bought for over $527m by Zynga, the US company behind the hugely popular ‘FarmVille’ game. The sale will directly benefit the Department of Zoology: as a shareholder, the University will receive over £30m from the Zynga deal, and a proportion of this will be invested in studentships within the Department. This is one of the largest transactions ever involving a spin-out from the University of Oxford, and reflects NaturalMotion’s spectacular success in this field.

Links

NaturalMotion - http://www.naturalmotion.com/

Zynga - http://zynga.com/

BBC News story on the sale of NaturalMotion - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25973764