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The Esoteric Beat: Dragons, Faces, Plumbers

Welcome to 'The Esoteric Beat', the news report that provides new and unusual ways to think about games and culture. This week's column looks at procedural dragons, soft ...
Welcome to 'The Esoteric Beat', the news report that provides new and unusual ways to think about games and culture. This week's column looks at procedural dragons, soft tissue and harder music. - This week's Unusual Research Using Clever Math Award goes to Here Be Dragons by Todd Furmanski, a researcher at the University of Southern California. His virtual reality project is a smart piece of coding that creates abstract environments and lifeforms without direct intervention by a designer. The effect is quite spooky [AVI link]. Here Be Dragons' misty VR world is created procedurally, and both creatures and spaces share similar digital 'genes' in the algorithms used to generate them. This will, Fumanski hopes, create a coherency in auto-generating a virtual world that has not been seen before at this level of sophistication. It is "an experiment in using emergent and genetic algorithms in generating virtual spaces" and that's something that will likely become more important as larger virtual worlds are created in the future. Auto-generation that can reach a decent level of internal coherency and believable detail will be of a huge boon in cutting down the man hours required to create landscapes, and even detailed game spaces such as simulated towns (already being tried, to some extent, in Flagship Studios' forthcoming Hellgate: London). Such things currently occupy large amounts of level designers' time, and anything that could accelerate the process could be a major advancement. Of course, early versions of such procedures are already in use in a number of games - EVE Online's universe of stars and planets was auto-generated using an algorithm based on the growth of metallic crystals, which gave it an apparent symmetry in randomness, with the minimum of human effort in its creation. Here Be Dragons is the subject of Furmanski's thesis [.DOC version]. - Often character-focused tools and technology company Avid/Softimage, who gives away its XSI graphics creation tool free to modders, believes it's made a breakthrough in cheap and simple facial animation. Its new 'Face Robot' tool should, it believes, be able to accurately convey human expressions, as well as simplifying the costs of the facial animation process by being able to capture the movements of all-important 'soft tissue' elements of the face, something that is very difficult to do with current 3D cameras. Softimage's interpretive software should, the company claims, be better at reproducing these expressions because it is pre-programmed with the muscles and movements that it knows a human face is capable of. Cheaper, easy facial animation sounds ideal, but can Softimage now write a program that produces faultless voice acting to go with those ever-so believable facial tics? - Finally, for all those of you who can't get enough of that game music kitsch, Koji Kondo's seminal music from the SNES classic Super Mario World has been re-interpreted by indie music artist XOC on lots of instruments, in a decidedly unofficial cover version style. It's rather interesting listening, using instruments that range from from a bike horn to a coconut thumb piano - just don't expect whoever you share your workspace with to think the same way about the release... [Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his progressive games journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times, to name but a few.]

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