GDC 2013: Activision's pursuit of photorealism

Pierre Bienaimé
P. Bienaimé|04.04.13

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GDC 2013: Activision's pursuit of photorealism
GDC 2013 Activision's pursuit of photorealism
At a GDC panel titled "Next Generation Character Rendering" last week, research and development staffers at Activision-Blizzard showed off some stunning computer-generated portraits. The catch? They don't represent in-game assets; instead, they showcase the tech behind the graphics.

So while these we won't be seeing the lady above as the protagonist of Titan, it's reasonable to expect that the characters of Blizzard's future games could look just as convincing and real. As I looked on from the audience, my iPhone's camera focused on the projected slides as if they beheld actual faces.

MMO gamers know that great (or in this case, spectacular) graphics don't make the game. The characters we find most compelling as we play games might not even have been designed with photorealism in mind. But done right, this kind of technology could certainly strengthen our engagement and sense of intimacy with rendered characters.

Take, for instance, the screenshot below.

GDC 2013 Activision's pursuit of photorealism
We're not just looking at more realistic ways of depicting what we've seen already in this generation of graphics. We're looking at a new level of detail that changes and enhances what even can be depicted at all. A sheen of sweat or reddened eyes can communicate to us -- without words -- that a character is fearful or has been crying.

Throughout the presentation, the speakers pointed to the fact that it was often by exploring human anatomy and microscopic images that they overcame certain graphic hurdles. "You may think that this [type of research] is not relevant to character rendering. I thought the same, but I was wrong," Jorge Jimenez, one of the two lecturers, explained.

GDC 2013 Activision's pursuit of photorealism
About the image above, which is actually a microscopic image of a human pore, he wrote:
This image was a way to show how something extremely small can still have impact in character rendering. You can notice how the pore has a lot occlusion inside of it. The point is that you can't have reflections inside of a pore as the surrounding areas are blocked. We modeled this by using a cavity map in a special way to tone down the specular reflections inside of the pores.

The importance of this is that you are introducing more variations to the image and breaking flat specular patterns. Basically, adding imperfections, which in the end is the key for photorealistic character renders.
For more photorealistic eyecandy, check out Jimenez' blog posts and professional site on the subject. And of course, here's the technology in action, brought about with facial motion capture. Note that this video was run on a Geforce GTX 680.

If you've noticed that all of these visuals avoid representing hair -- the bane of MMO players everywhere -- you're not alone. Next on Activision's R&D agenda are hair, teeth, and eyelashes. The studio's continued work just might make the next generation of video games even more gorgeous.

Massively sent its ace reporters to San Francisco to bring you back the biggest MMO news from this year's GDC, the largest pro-only gaming industry con in the world! Whether it's EVE Online or Star Wars: The Old Republic or that shiny new toy you've got your eye on, we're on the case, so stay tuned for all the highlights from the show!
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