Three members of the Adelaide-based RatBag Computer Games Company provided a demonstration of a galaxy of stunning special effects produced by their in-house developed software that they use to generate most of the virtual reality in their latest games. This was their return visit to speak to an enthusiastic audience of about 30 members and visitors at the December meeting of the SA Microprocessor Group Inc at the WEA, Angas St Adelaide.
Cam Dunn, CTO at RatBag, used his laptop and data projector to show a free-running demo CD of a game scenerio based on Venus Beach in the USA. The "camera" travelled down many of the streets and did some helicopter views of this seaside suburb of Los Angeles. During the trip around the town we passed pedestrians and a lot of road traffic. There was even an Adelaide building transplanted into the scene.
Paradoxically, we had to have our attention drawn to the natural, elastic, fluid movement of the people walking around the town because otherwise we would have been missed it. There's the catch -- you seldom notice the really good programming, you only notice the bad stuff!
Tony Albrecht (Engine Lead), and Robin Maddock (Lead Programmer), described the method of triangulation and rendering that is used extensively throughout the graphics' industry for animation and virtual reality. The typically 1/2 million triangles have their vertices stored in RAM as 32 bit values. A considerable saving in memory is made by storing the shared vertices' data of adjacent triangles in the same memory locations instead of separately.
Some other compromises necessary to optimize performance and utilization of the available memory space that go unnoticed to the casual observer (probably fully aborbed in the game) are that some distant objects are ignored and not displayed until they come "within range", and that some distant objects are configured only in two dimensions (ie. flat) and have no third dimension to them. The "helicopter flight" showed other compromises that the player at ground level would not be aware of such as the buildings are just hollow shells and are without roofs.
The team described and demonstrated some of the other effects that are essential for producing convincing realism such as solar reflections from windows and similar surfaces and shadows that change as the "camera" pans over the landscape. These effects not only provide realism, but constitute a large proportion of the overall programming effort as well.
At this point Cam demonstrated how he can interconnect his laptop and a Sony P/S 2 in a cross platform combination. The laptop whose output was being displayed on the data projector was being used to select the effects in real time on a game that was playing on a P/S 2 and being displayed on a TV. This is the kind of demonstration that is given to prospective game distributors. Cam was able to change the characteristics of hundreds of game parameters "on the fly" in the same way that games' designers do to construct games' scenarios during game play development. The one that really amused the audience was the change to the gravity where the car was gravitationally attracted to the left of screen making it "fall" onto the vertical surface of a building and bounce and drive around the side of the building just like it would on the horizontal road surface.
Next, Robin and Tony demonstrated some of the software tools that they have integrated into Sony PlayStation 2 games' software. The scene was a post-Apocalyptic Sydney destroyed by an atomic bomb with all the twisted wreckage of buildings, the bridge, roadways and the harbour tunnel with the harbour itself drained of all water. Tony and Robin played with fog, atomic bomb flashes, light, colour and gloom to make some really wierd effects. It was definitely something the NSW Tourist Bureau would not want to see!
With something like 60 million Sony Playstations around the world RatBag Computer Games presently sell individual games software to distributors typically for several million dollars each. Other games' platforms such as Microsoft's XBox are increasingly adding to RatBags' income. Computer games are now undeniably very big business.
I am personally amazed just how real the RatBag's team have got virtual reality to look within the constraints of the currently available hardware. Still, they must be looking forward to the release of the Sony PlayStation 3 shortly and go even further.
We know how far computer graphics can go when we see the results of using the almost unlimited hardware and money available to film producers such as Peter Jackson for his The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. So, with the ongoing improvements in games' computer hardware accompanied by a drop in prices (good old Moore's Law) we can expect things to keep on getting better.
The RatBag's team attracted a lot of questions from the audience while we all enjoyed some nice, cool, Xmas drinks.
Many thanks to the RatBag's team of Cam, Tony and Robin for a thoroughly entertaining evening. I hope they can come back again in the not too distant, and hopefully, non-Apocalyptic future.
. . . Rick Matthews, SAMG Secretary/Treasurer.