How to Detect Markers with OpenCV and ZED in Unity

In this guide, we’ll add ArUco marker detection to a ZED first-person AR experience, letting you anchor virtual objects to real-world images.

Tons of people have asked us how to add marker detection to our Unity plugin. It’s the most robust way to anchor virtual objects to the real world, short of sticking Vive Trackers to everything. They’re useful for everything from positioning objects when a scene starts to syncing multiple ZED positions for multi-user experiences.

We’ve added code and examples to our Unity plugin to perform simple marker detection via OpenCV, an open-source library for computer vision. It’s built to work out of the box, but you can easily add your own logic that runs when a marker is detected. You can also repurpose the whole package for other OpenCV functions unrelated to marker detection.

In this tutorial, we’ll set up a basic scene that places virtual objects on printed ArUco markers. Then we’ll give a quick overview on how to customize the package for your own needs.

What You Need


* You can use the free trial of OpenCV for Unity within the Unity editor, but you will not be able to build a standalone application without buying the asset.

† While Vuforia is a more popular solution for marker detection in Unity, it needs to access the camera stream directly, blocking the ZED SDK from opening the camera at the same time.

Build your Scene

Start by creating a new Unity project and importing the ZED plugin and the OpenCV for Unity wrapper.

Now we’ll set up our scene:

  • Create a new scene
  • Delete the main camera
  • In the Projects tab, go to ZED -> Prefabs and drag-drop a ZED_Rig_Stereo into your scene. This sets up the ZED camera and displays the output
  • Right-click the Hierarchy and click Create Empty. Rename the new object “ZED to OpenCV Retriever”
  • Add a ZEDToOpenCVRetriever component to the new object. This converts every new image from the ZED into a format OpenCV can use, and sends it to scripts that need it.
  • Right-click the Hierarchy and click Create Empty again. Rename this new object “ArUco Detection Manager”
  • Add a ZEDArUcoDetectionManager component to this object. This searches for markers in each new image and tells the relevant objects when it detects one.
  • Create one more empty object, rename it “Drone” and add a MarkerObject_MoveToMarker script to it. This will cause it to move to a marker of a specified index whenever it’s detected.
  • In the Projects tab, go to ZED OpenCV Marker Detection -> Examples -> ArUco Drone Wars -> Prefabs, and click-drag the ArUco Drone w Marker Offset prefab on top of the Drone object you just made to make it a child of it. This creates a floating drone character.

Your scene’s Hierarchy should look like this:

Prepare Your Markers

We’ll use an ArUco marker from the “4×4” dictionary from OpenCV’s ArUco module.

This ‘dictionary’ is a collection of images made up of black and white tiles, specifically designed to be recognizable and non-symmetrical. ArUco itself comes with pre-defined dictionaries, so you don’t have to make your own.

The markerID value of any MarkerObject script refers to the index (technically the ‘key’) that we’re looking for in the dictionary we set in ZEDArUcoDetectionManager. So if we set a MarkerObject’s markerID to 0, it tells the plugin that we’re looking for the below image:

We’ve included the first five images of that dictionary in the Aruco Marker Images folder, but you can view/download all of them here. We’ll just use that first image for now.

It’s best to print out markers onto non-glossy paper. From there, you can cut them out, leaving white borders around the image. These borders will prevent the marker’s edges from blending in with dark objects. Optionally, you can also tape/glue the markers to something rigid, like cardboard, to hold the paper flat.

If you don’t have access to a printer, you can display the markers on a screen like a cell phone. If you do, make sure the brightness is turned up all the way and avoid resizing the image during development.

Configuring Markers in Unity

Once you have your marker, you’ll need to know its width/height. This is so that when OpenCV sees a marker, it can calculate how close it is from the space between its corners on the 2D image. If you plan to use multiple markers at the same time, they should all be the same size.

Get a ruler with centimeters on it, and measure the width of the marker.

This marker is 10 centimeters wide, or 0.1 meters.

Back in Unity, select ArUco Detection Manager. Put the value you measured into the Marker Width Meters field converted to meters (ex. 6cm = 0.06m).

You can ignore the other fields for now. ImageRetriever is a reference to the scene’s ZEDToOpenCVRetriever script, but it’ll find the instance automatically if it’s null at start. MarkerDictionary is what you’d change if you wanted to use a different dictionary, but as stated, we’re using the default 4×4 one for now.

Run the Scene

With your ZED plugged in, start the scene and point your camera at your ArUco marker. The drone will appear over the marker whenever it’s visible.

Under the Hood

Here’s what happens in the scene you just created:

  • When the ZED camera finishes initializing, ZEDToOpenCVRetriever creates an OpenCV Mat object (short for matrix) that represents your ZED’s projection parameters.
  • Each time the ZED grabs a new image, ZEDToOpenCVRetriever converts it into another OpenCV mat that represents a grayscale version of the image in the left camera, and calls an event with it along with the first camera Mat it made.
  • ZEDArUcoDetectionManager is subscribed to this event, and uses the Mats it received to call marker detection functions from OpenCV.
  • Each marker it finds has an ID that represents the marker’s index in the pre-defined dictionary we chose. For all IDs with a MarkerObject script in the scene, ZEDArUcoDetectionManager calculates the 3D position and rotation of the marker, and uses them to call each MarkerObject‘s MarkerDetected method so it can reposition itself.
  • For all MarkerObjects where its ID wasn’t detected, we call its MarkerNotDetected method, so it can turn itself off.

Going Further

  • If you want to do something other than move a GameObject when you detect a marker, make a new script that inherits from MarkerObject, the way that MarkerObject_MoveToMarker does. For reference, see MarkerObject_MoveToMarkerSimple for a barebones version of the script you just used.
  • If you want to spawn multiple objects, like in the Simple Marker Placement and ArUco Drone Wars samples, you’ll need to print out more markers of different indexes – 0-4 for example. We include the first five markers of the 4×4 dictionary as .png images in the package, and you can find the rest here.
  • It’s possible to use multiple copies of the same marker to spawn copies of the same object. Use the MarkerObject_CreateObjectsAtMarkers for this. However, note that this is not as robust as using multiple markers, as it has to estimate which marker object corresponds to which from frame to frame.
  • If you wish to use OpenCV modules other than ArUco, you can still use ZEDToOpenCVRetriever to get images from the ZED each frame pre-converted to an OpenCV mat, along with the appropriate matrix to represent the ZED camera.
  • This plugin will work with the ZED Mini’s pass-through AR mode with little extra work – just make sure you use the ZED_Rig_Stereo prefab instead of ZED_Rig_Mono.and that XR is enabled in the project. Just note that OpenCV will affect performance, and make extra sure that you’ve put the measured width of your marker into ZEDArUcoDetectionManager or else positions will look very incorrect in your right eye.

As always, contact us if you have problems with this tutorial. Same goes if you make something cool – we’d love to hear about it!