Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Virtual World Platforms, Visualization in 3D

It It It’s Aliiiiive (evil cackle): Rendering Reality in Games and Virtual Worlds

Real-time rendering of the realistic, the promise of graphics so stunningly real that you’ll really….OK, well you get the idea, although the use of realism in virtual worlds and games cycles us back to that odd difficulty: when it seems really real, the imperfections make it feel fake.

Make sense? Well…let’s just say that the promise of the highly rendered virtual world may be just around the corner, and Blue Mars may be just a taste of things to come.

But first, not even knowing where to FIND the type of graphics chip I have, I can’t pass judgment on chip specs and don’t know what the difference is between a voxol and a pixel, so all I have to go on are video clips and commentary on other sites. But here’s how I understand this sudden spate of the realistically rendered, and it seems to combine the power of new chips with a bunch of fancy terms like cloud computing (which sounds pretty vapour-y to me, kind of like saying “lots of servers all over” in fancy terms that IT people can charge a lot of money for) and mumbo jumbo about ray-tracing.

So for those of you who are like me and just want a snapshot summary, here’s my take on some of the latest when it comes to realistically rendered games and virtual worlds.

Blue Mars WAS Ahead of the Curve
After seeing bits and pieces of Blue Mars at the virtual worlds conference in New York this past spring, I was rather taken with how beautiful their virtual world environment could be. Their promise was that they were building for standard PCs that didn’t even quite exist yet - trying to get ahead of the curve by building the world on CryEngine2 (click photos for larger).

Blue Mars is promising an early 2009 release and have partnered with content providers including a company under the direction of famed concept artist Syd Mead.

Avatar Reality will also be in LA for the Virtual Worlds conference a week or so from now which might be a good time to see how far along their development has come.

Now, Blue Mars was first out of the gate for virtual world companies in using advanced graphics, the kind that demand high-level chips. CryEngine2 allows “Blue Mars (to) render millions of textured-mapped polygons per scene, with real-time performance. 3D objects can be built and textured with photo-realistic detail.”

Otoy and the Vapour-Like LivePlace
Then along came a mystery, unearthed by TechCrunch - a video that either left you gasping or rolling your eyes in disbelief. LivePlace was supposedly a virtual world being developed by one of the founders of mySpace, and the video was a demo of the platform. There was a lot of skepticism following the leak of the video, but the makers of the graphics rendering engine, OTOY, started to explain their end of the technology while leaving clarification of LivePlace to the folks who made them sign an NDA.

So first, the video that started all the speculation and nay-sayers:

LivePlace itself is a mystery (the video may be nothing more than a pitch for venture money) but the founder of OTOY provided one of those endless tech-specy comments of which I can’t make heads or tails. What DID grab my attention was a video in which the founder demos the engine:

As OTOY said (and about which I posted here):

“The whole aim of our work last month on the Ruby demo for AMD was to show that the quality of offline and real time work is identical starting with this generation of GPUs. The following presentations this month are just introducing Lightstage and how it makes characters (or any CG object) look 100% real in those real time environments.”

Which brings us to chips…

AMD Makes it Real
A thread to the story of both Blue Mars and Otoy, aside from a lot of confounding tech speak, is that they both rely on faster, better, yummier graphics cards to make them work. The launch of a new AMD chip was accompanied by a pretty astonishing video (by the director of Fight Club):

“AMD gave a taste of what it says a game maker can do with its new microprocessor: A 30-second clip of what appeared to be a real scorpion skittering around a terrarium, presumably hunted by another equally terrifying bug. The scorpion demo was made by the film director David Fincher (director of “Fight Club”) on a computer. Was it a video game? An interactive movie? AMD wouldn’t say. But it looked scarily real.”

Now if this doesn’t look real….(sorry if it shows some kind of commercial at the start, grabbed from the LA Times):

OK - so, this kind of rendering capacity on your home computer? AMD says so, ready to ship within a few weeks for $200:

“The processor will be featured on a new graphics card from AMD called the ATI Radeon and will go on sale in a few weeks for $200. The graphics card, which will also be built into some new computers and possibly video game consoles someday, will be able to show special effects in games that many of today’s graphics cards don’t (most PC games let you turn off those features if your processor can’t handle them).

AMD is hoping that it can appeal to developers who want to create games that are of movie quality. It also hopes that moviemakers will use the extra horsepower so they can render film faster and, if they want, make movies more interactive. AMD calls this strategy Cinema 2.0.”

Animate Avatars
And finally, for a taste of what could be possible imagine animating your avatar using the technology shown in this video (and yes, this is a computer-generated model):

There’s a more detailed “how-to” video here.

While the destination for this type of animation is games (or maybe movies) it isn’t a stretch to think that it can be used to create custom animation sets for upload into virtual worlds like Second Life (or Blue Mars, come to think of it). Combined maybe with facial recognition cameras like the FaceAPI say, hacked together with the avatar pupeteer?

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