[In this Intel-sponsored thought piece, company veteran Roger Chandler looks at why trudging through the Uncanny Valley to create realistic interactions with virtual creatures may lead to upsides in AI, special effects, physics, and more.]
One night several months ago, my buddies and I logged on to play a newly released, online role-playing game. The environments were lush, the details were rich, and the monsters were stunningly rendered. I was quickly sucked into it all...until I ran into a small log lying in front of me. It literally stopped me in my tracks.
I know a lot of great game developers and designers, and I understand the difficult design decisions they must make when bringing a title to market, but this log really surprised me. It was richly textured and accurately modeled, which was nice, but it "behaved" like a brick wall.
Despite being a powerful warrior who had just slain three ogres single-handedly, I could not raise my in-game foot 18 virtual inches to pass over this small log. So I walked around it and we continued on. But that experience stuck with me.
In 1970 roboticist Masahiro Mori introduced the Uncanny Valley hypothesis: as robots and other representations of humans begin to look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.
The "valley" refers to a precipitous drop in the viewers' positive response to the near-human entity as it gets closer to realism, due to the dramatically increased expectations around behavior and other subtle human-like details.
The Uncanny Valley has drawn much attention from the gaming industry in recent years, and while it definitely applies to human-like characters, I think the effect extends to the environment as a whole.
As a first-hand witness to our industry's ongoing graphics arms race, I believe it takes more than beautiful scenery to engage a gamer. We live in a world where every object has distinct physical properties and every creature has unique behavioral characteristics.
As developers continue to improve how these objects and creatures look in-game, they must also meet the players' heightened expectations regarding how these objects and creatures will act.
For example, I do not expect a blocky, pixelated tree to sway in the wind or splinter realistically when I blow it to bits with a rocket launcher. But if that tree looks nearly identical to the one in my front yard, then it will be a noticeable distraction if it does not act like the real thing.
One of the things I love about my job is hearing developers' thoughts on how they can create new levels of interactive realism with the increasingly powerful and programmable multi-core processors Intel has on its roadmap.
Certainly developers are doing great things with today's generation of multi-core processors to ensure games look and act more real. Here are a few of their efforts:
- Threading to improve overall framerate
- Accelerating asset loading to make scene transitions more seamless
- Utilizing procedural content generation to ease the burden on the artists and to dynamically populate vast worlds with rich environments
- Applying particle effects for more realistic smoke, fire, and weather systems
- Enhancing artificial intelligence for in-game characters
- Improving game physics to ensure objects interact with each other and, more importantly, blow up more realistically
As multi-core solutions continue to improve the visual computing platform, how will games begin to "act" more real? One advancement I look forward to seeing pretty soon is increased interactivity with a wider array of objects in the environment.
For the log example, being able to step over it would have been great, but it would have been even better if I could have picked it up and maybe swung it around to kill more ogres.
When you walk into your local adventurers' tavern, you should be able to not only move the furniture around, but also pick up the stools and tables around you to defend yourself in a brawl.
And instead of interacting with monolithic models of buildings or crates in games, endowing actual building materials with precise physical properties, such as brick, stone, and wood, would allow you to build a limitless array of in-game structures.
The next logical step would then be to extend beyond inorganic materials to in-game characters. Instead of a monolithic model of an ogre, one day that ogre may be composed of virtual skeletal and muscular structures, overlain with realistic layers of supple skin and individually rendered strands of hair.
Ogres' animations might be driven by how their bodies are made, from bone to skin, with each character having its own unique and dynamic gait and posture. They may wear layers of simulated cloth garments that can be stretched or torn like real fabric, with capes that flow in the wind as real capes do.
On the behavior side, soon we will be seeing advanced mass behavior applied to thousands of highly "intelligent" ogres, each with its own unique thresholds for aggression, courage, and cowardice, making every battle unpredictably different.
Eventually we will reach the point where, when one of these ogres responds to your actions, its words and body language will be so well timed, appropriate, and customized to your specific in-game situation, and its gaze so hyper-realistic, it may elicit a strong emotional reaction.
Imagine in-game characters that can dynamically respond to your actions with wisecracks that are so perfectly timed and context appropriate it makes you laugh out loud. What if this game contains thousands of these "living" characters who interact with each other as well as with you, the player, to create a constantly changing and infinitely replayable in-game social and emotional experience?
Today, designers and developers vastly more creative than I are cooking up ideas that are just as, if not more so, ambitious. Many in the industry are growing increasingly excited about the day when physics, behavior, AI, and animation come together in a more seamless way.
And that is really the beauty of it. At Intel, we love to make great technology that is accessible. We are passionate about ensuring our products and developer tools unleash innovation, and we are anxious to see how developers will reshape the gaming experience with the increasing amount of compute power we continually serve up.
Of course, the trick will be to harness all of this potential to ensure gamers have more FUN. But I guess we will step over that log when we get to it.