I leapt over a building in a single bound. I flew past multiple skyscrapers. I was actually playing a building simulator using the Oculus Rift and despite the lo-res textures from the game developed by Esri, it was one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had. Looking left, right, above, and below, I felt like I was in the Matrix. Only the Matrix wasn’t something I was watching, but something I was directly experiencing. If this year’s SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Technique) had a theme, it was total immersion. SIGGRAPH always has a unique mix of technologies that often seem too good to be true. This year at the Anaheim Convention Center, the potential promised something along the lines of Star Trek’s Holodeck. Reality is catching up with science fiction.
With graphics getting as good as they are, I’ve wondered and mulled over the future of gaming. Current generation games already look super realistic. What’s the next plateau? More and more realism is a given, of course. But I also feel it’s moving in a direction of more immersion, actually making you believe you’re there in the world the artists and designers have developed. I know it’s still far away, but 3D TVs attempt that on a certain level, as do the motion sensors on the Microsoft Kinect. Nintendo’s 3DS takes a stab at it on a portable level. The Oculus Rift from Oculus VR isn’t perfect, but it’s by far the best virtual simulator I’ve seen, especially with a field of view which is 110 degrees diagonal. The final resolution is supposed to be upgraded to 1920-1080 and when that happens, I can only imagine how crisp and clear it will look.
There were a variety of motion capture technologies on display and some of them looked fantastic. The more powerful these tools become, the easier it will be for developers to make games. Say you’re an Indie developer and need basic animation without knowing how to animate. Using this technology could be a cost-effective way of getting the data you need. At the same time, while broader and more physicals motions are perfect for motion capture, can any technology capture the nuances of a human face expressing itself? You know, slight facial gestures that connote sorrow or restrained bliss? As though responding directly to that, Pixar University had a huge booth talking about many of the different technologies they utilized to create their moving canvases in Monster University. They are recreating living art which can’t just be painted by a machine. Or can it?
3D Printers were a big part of the exhibition hall and some of the things they “printed” were pretty amazing. The printers are getting faster, more durable, and cheaper with every passing week. The additive process where layers are built ground up (versus machining which removes and cuts out an object from a bigger solid) allows people to construct whatever they want. I don’t know what this bodes for the future of goods and how the ability to print almost anything will change our economy. But even in its simpler forms, it was amazing to see up close.
Much of SIGGRAPH consisted of talks from various studio artists and programmers discussing the technology behind movies and games. There were a lot of great demonstrations and classes on all sorts of 3D techniques. I’ve never given a talk at SIGGRAPH, though I did do one for Alias Maya at GDC a few years back when I was EA. They’re fun to give though they take weeks of preparation. Major kudos to all the presenters.
The Star Trek Holodeck is still a distance away in the future. But it keeps on creeping up on us and the exponentials of technology keep on multiplying at faster rates. I sometimes find myself amused, wondering what kids growing up with games like The Last of Us and Modern Warfare would think if I told them that after emerging from the Atari ages, I thought The Legend of Zelda was the most amazing game visually when I first saw it. Seeing the technology on display at SIGGRAPH made me in turn wonder what the kids of the future will think about our current day technology.
Peter Tieryas has worked as an artist at companies like LucasArts and Electronic Arts. He currently works in VFX and recent films include Oz the Great and Powerful and Men in Black 3. He blogs about games, movies, and books at tieryas.wordpress.com and tweets random nonsense at @TieryasXu. He also thinks TAY is one of the friendliest and coolest communities around.