This Is What 1970s Motion Capture Tech Looked Like


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This Is What 1970s Motion Capture Tech Looked Like

How one of the most infamous TV shows of all time—one apparently cancelled in the middle of its first episode—gave viewers a very early look at motion capture technology.

Re-Exposure is an occasional Motherboard feature where we look back on delightful old tech photos from wire service archives. In February 1969, the creators of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, George Schlatter and Ed Friendly, thought it'd be great to put a computer in charge of making a variety show. At least that's what they said, anyway. That was the conceit of Turn-On, an ABC series that replaced a laugh track with a Moog soundtrack and loaded the result with raunchy jokes. In his autobiography What's So Funny?: My Hilarious Life, initial guest host Tim Conway explained what viewers were tuning into:


To give you an idea of what Turn-On was like, in one sketch I was arrested and brought to a police station where I was allowed to make one phone call. I picked up the receiver and made an obscene call.

Surrealistic and context-free in the culture of 1969, it quickly became one of the most infamous examples of a show cancelled after its first episode. According to Conway, it was infamously removed from the air mid-broadcast in Cleveland, and many West Coast stations decided not to air it at all.

It's more tall tale than series at this point; actual video of on the show is hard to find. The only clip of the show even on the internet is of a short, voiced-over part of its unaired second episode that showed up on ABC News nearly two decades later. But we know that it included a whole lot of wacky technology—the Moog was still brand-new, and the animation was ambitiously ahead of its time.

Which brings us to the above photo. The shot shows a Turn-On dancer wearing a very primitive motion capture system that's controlling a character Pixar would never touch, but if you look closer, you'll notice that the motion capture system is built from Tinkertoys. Tinkertoys!

Here's the crazy part about this: It looks like it's fake, but it's totally real. It relies on a technology called Scanimate, a "data suit" that a developer named Lee Harrison III first built in 1960s. The Tinkertoys held in place potentiometers, which picked up signs of movement that were then controlled by a nearby computer.

According to a 1998 Medialab article from IEEE, Harrison's technology won a 1972 National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences award, was involved in building the slick animated TV logos of the 1970s, and helped inspire the much more advanced technology that followed—which is in pretty much every Hollywood movie.

So even if we can't find the first episode of Turn-On, its fingerprints are pretty much everywhere else.