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Monday, January 5, 2015

Selection Twist

If you played SOE's Landmark during alpha you will remember the first iteration of the Line tool. It had some serious issues as soon as you started shifting the start and end position. We realized then that we needed a more organic approach to the line volumes. We were using flat planes to define the line volume and they were not able to transition smoothly enough from one end to the next.

In order to fix that, we chose to tackle on a bigger feature that had the line tool as a special case. This is usually a bad engineering practice, you just don't make a problem bigger to take care of a smaller one, but it turned out right. The line tool with disjoint ends was a special case of a mesh under a free-form deformation volume (FFD), so we did just that.

As you can see in the previous image, the sides of the line volume gradually curve from the start position to the end.

This has been in use for a while now in the line tool, but we just got time to add control points for the new selection tool. This allows many new cool shapes that were not possible before, like a simple bar that has been twisted:

In general the free-form deformation can produce pretty much anything you want. You can see other applications in this video:

The same operations can be performed over copy/pasted content and even the output of procedural grammars. This is already my favorite tool, if you are into twisting and bending I'm sure you will love it too.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

How the voxel zebra got its stripes

Here is the story behind these two zebras:
The zebra at the left was handcrafted by an artist. It is a traditional polygon mesh where each triangle has UV coordinates. These coordinates are used to wrap a handpainted 2D texture over the triangle mesh.

This is how most 3D objects have been created since the beginning of time. It is a very powerful way to capture rich surfaces in models. It is very efficient, it aligns well with the hardware, allows you to have incredible detail and even animate.

Voxels can also have UV. This allows you to capture more detail at much lower voxel resolution.

The zebra at the right had an interesting life. It went from the artist made polygon into a full voxel representation. Then it went back to triangles just before rendering. UV coordinates were preserved along this trip, but there is a lot of trickery involved. These are different meshes.

Both models use exactly the same texture the artist made. This is the important part. You could draw both in the same draw call.

The voxel version has fewer triangles. This is a 100x100x100 voxelization. To give you an idea of how small that is, here is the equivalent of that in 2D:
If you approached the zebra and looked at its head, at the left is how big these voxels would be:

At the right you see our results. The same amount of voxels can provide a lot more detail if UV coordinates are used.

I am happy with the results. To me this is as important as solving the physics problem. This will take the look of voxel scenes to a whole new level, while allowing you to harvest and destroy these carefully designed things.

This is still experimental and there are tricky issues ahead, like handling topology changes (holes closing.) and dealing with aliasing. For now I got to make a post with images of only zebras in it.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Looking inside voxel assets

You do not have to be a cat or a Floyd fan to enjoy a laser show.

Here is a laser-looking tool that allows you to explore the inside of voxelized assets. The challenge was to show the interior features of a model while keeping the context clear in the viewer's mind. The following video shows it in action:

I really like this new toy. I have wasted many hours already playing with it, looking if any of the assets we have so far had any sort of defects inside, getting a better understand of how these models are built.

It also allows to place pivot points inside our instances:

This is how we came up with it. We could not see anything inside!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Progressive LOD

We still have to apply this to entire scenes, but here you can see how it is possible to have progressive level of detail transitions with voxel data.

Below you can see the same mushroom from the earlier post going through several LODs:

Here is another example, this time using a more regular object so you can better follow the voxel splits:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Missing Dimension

I believe when you combine voxels with procedural generation you get something that goes well beyond the sum of these two parts. You can be very successful at any of these two in isolation, but it is when you mix them that you open up a whole set of possibilities. I came to this realization only recently.

I was watching a TV series the other night. Actors were filmed against a green screen and the whole fantasy environment was computer generated. I noticed something about the ruins in this place. The damage was clearly done by an artist's hand. Look at the red arrows:

The way bricks are broken (left arrow) reminds me more of careful chisel work than anything else. The rubble (right arrow) is carefully arranged and placed around the floor. Also we should see smaller fragments of rocks and dust.

While the artists were clearly talented, it seems they did not have the budget to create physically plausible damage by hand. The problem with the series environment was not that it was computer generated. It wasn't computer generated enough.

Consider physically-based rendering. It is used everywhere now, but there was a time when artists had to solve the illumination problem by hand. Computing photons is no different than computing rolling stones. You may call it procedural generation when it is about stones, and rendering when it is photons, but these are the same thing.

As we move forward, I see physically based generation becoming a thing. But there is a problem. Until now we have been too focused on rendering. Most virtual worlds (like game scenes) are described only as a surface. You cannot perform physically based generation in a world that is only a surface. We are missing the inner dimension.

Our world is 4D. This is not your usual "time is the fourth dimension" pickup line. The fourth dimension is the what, like when you ask what's inside a box. Rendering was focused mostly on where the what turns from air into solid, which is a 3D surface. While 3D is good enough for physically based rendering, we need 4D for a physically plausible world.

Is that bad that we are not 4D? In games this translates to static worlds, or scripted destruction at best. You may be holding the most powerful weapon in the universe but it won't make a dent on the floor. It shows everywhere as poor art, implausible placement of rocks, snow, debris and damage, also as lack of detail in much larger features like cities, castles and landscape.

If you want worlds that can be changed by its inhabitants, or if you want to generate content by simulation, you need to know your world as a volumetric entity. Voxels are a very simple way to achieve this.

Going 4D with your content is a bit of a problem. Many of the assets you may have could not work. Not every mesh defines a volume. Often, meshes have holes in them. They do not show because they are hidden by other parts of the object. These are not holes like the center of a doughnut. It is a cut in the mesh that makes it just a surface in 3D space, not a closed volume.

Take a look at the following asset:

The stem of this mushroom is not volumetric. It is missing the cap. This does not show because the top of the mushroom is sunk into the stem and this hole is completely hidden from sight. If you tried to voxelize this stem it would have unpredictable results. This hole is a singularity to the voxelization, it may produce all sorts of artifacts.

We have voxelization that can deal with this. If you voxelized the top and bottom together, the algorithm is robust enough to realize the hole is capped by other pieces. But we just got lucky in this case, the same does not apply to any open mesh.

Even if you get meshes that are closed and topologically correct, you are only describing a surface. What happens when you scratch the surface? If I cut the mushroom with a knife, it should reveal some sort of mushy, moist material. Where is this information coming from? Whoever is creating this asset has to put it there. The same applies to the bricks, rocks, plants, even living beings of your virtual world.

I think the have reached a turning point. Virtual worlds will remain static and very expensive to build unless we can make physically correct decisions about the objects in there. Either to destroy them or to enhance them, we need to know what they are made of, what is inside.
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