This blogpost is sponsored by Sinespace, and was written in my new role as an embedded reporter for this virtual world (more details here).
I want you to take a good look at the person in this photograph:
Actually, this is not a photograph of a real person. This is a completely computer-generated game character, an example of the astounding progress that AAA videogame companies have recently been able to achieve in creating realistic-looking digital simulations of humanity.
This picture was taken from a presentation made at the 2013 Game Developers Conference by Jorge Jimenez and Javier von der Pahlen at Activision Blizzard, where they talked about the recent major strides in research in this area of computer science.
Historically, one of the biggest problems in making digital humans is the Uncanny Valley effect: when people’s reaction to a humanoid object that imperfectly resembles a human being ranges from dislike to outright revulsion.
Here’s a good example, again a picture taken from that presentation; you can tell that something is not quite right, and you might find this picture rather creepy as a result:
What’s wrong here? Well, for one thing, real human eyes have a slightly translucent quality; when you look at a person, you can actually see a little bit of the back of their actual eyeball, instead of the flat, opaque, billiard-ball type eyeballs you see here.
Now compare that picture with the improved version:
See the difference? It’s subtle things like this that make or break the realism of an avatar in virtual worlds.
Sinespace is hard at work improving avatar skin textures. AAA games use high-resolution (4K or 8K) skin textures with lots of additional detail maps for closeups, but they are huge files—about 120 MB of data after compression! Even worse, they consume 500 MB or more of GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) RAM. In other words, it would only take a small crowd of avatars wearing these high-resolution skin textures to make even the best computer graphics cards cry and bring most virtual worlds to an absolute stand-still.
Sinespace has decided to create a new set of “universal” skin maps for both male and female avatars. If you select the “High Quality Skin Shading” option in the Sinespace client, it will include these new pre-baked skin maps (they simply get added to the existing skin maps on the avatar).
Here’s a slide from Sinespace’s Chief Product Officer, Adam Frisby’s recent keynote address showing you what that looks like:
Notice the new sliders for skin bumpiness and even skin age!
Sinespace is taking and applying some of the lessons learned from the cutting-edge research conducted by AAA game companies like Activision Blizzard in their quest to make more realistic human avatars.
For example, yet another avatar skin improvement that Sinespace will be working on is something called SSSS, which stands for Separable Sub-Surface Scattering, which refers to the way that light bounces around and even through human skin. Like the human eyeball. human skin is slightly translucent and not 100% opaque. You can see this if you hold your hand over a bright light source; you’ll see a reddish glow where the light is going through slightly.
You might not know that the skin shaders in Sinespace already have subsurface scattering, using an older algorithm pioneered by Activision Blizzard, but this will be a “new and improved” version. Sinespace will also be working on multi-layer skin improvements to avatar skin; human skin actually consists of multiple layers, which subtly changes the reflective properties of your skin.
In addition to improvements to avatar skin, there will also be new avatar eyeballs coming soon, which will feature moisture and occlusion settings to more closely resemble the real-life human eye! As you can see from the previous pictures, even these small changes can make a big difference.
However, none of these changes are going to help if they slow down performance. So Sinespace is also hard at work on rendering optimization, with the result that the amount of RAM used in your computer to display each avatar in a scene will be lowered dramatically (which means less lag in big crowds!).
This is exciting work. Sinespace is going to have increasingly realistic-looking human avatars over the next few years!