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The end of polygons: Can we have perfect graphics NOW?

3D games are rendered with polygons - little shapes that form surfaces. You know this. UNLEARN EVERYTHING YOU KNOW! Or... maybe not.

Startup Unlimited Detail has instigated a minor internet brouhaha with a video which claims that they can do away with the imperfect polygonal approach and render scenes which contain an unlimited number of voxels (like a pixel, but in 3D space) by using a super-clever search algorithm which only processes what's visible to the player. And they sort of can. Sounds like brilliant, cutting-edge stuff, right? Check out their pitch below:

Aside from the logo they probably asked a first-year art student to design for free, it all looks pretty exceptional… until you consider things like, say, animation. Thanks to the brilliant folks of Reddit, which is, in fact, our most credible source in this case, and which is where we first encountered the video, we got knowledge’d hard.

Polygons are excellent for animations - you can stick a skeleton in them, apply physics to them, warp them however you like, and it’s all dandy. The “point clouds” described in the video, however, are best suited for rendering static scenes. Right, so... that’s not quite as exciting.


Above: It don't move

And while the voice over suggests that this technology has been held back by frightened executives, Unlimited Detail isn't actually the only one on the case. Reddit commenter mindbleach has explained the current situation much better than we ever could:

“Ahh, sparse voxel octrees. Carmack intends to use them in the id Tech 6 engine (post-Rage). Here's what the video didn't mention: you can't animate these. They are as utterly inflexible as sprites. The closest you can come is to define every frame, can still have amazing object detail, but can't be procedurally animated (e.g. by ragdoll physics) and will move at a fixed framerate with no obvious tweening method. You can have this voxel world and it will look awesome, but it will be almost completely static…

…I like the technology presented, but the presentation itself is vapid and disingenuous. This is not a cure-all. Even Carmack is only using it in conjunction with polygonal actors.”

So this company is pulling our legs to some extent, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be excited about. What they’re doing is cool, and, as mentioned by mindbleach, John Carmack is exploring ray-tracing techniques for his next generation graphics engine, and so are many other brilliant bastards, presumably.

The three primary lessons we've learned are:


  1. A lot of people on the internet are a lot smarter than us.
  2. Videogames are going to continue blowing the crap out of our brains, and we have loads to look forward to...
  3. ...But don't be too easily wooed by snarky YouTube pitches. "Unlimited Detail" is some impressive stuff, but it isn't a perfect solution by far.

If you crave more knowledge, read the informative Reddit thread.

Mar 10, 2010

16 comments

  • TheNightFly - March 14, 2010 4:12 a.m.

    Terrain isn't usually animated anyway so that's where voxels can help. The CryENGINE by Crytek used voxels for rendering mountains in Far Cry and Crysis. No animation? lol Where there's a will, there's always a way.
  • JohnnyMaverik - March 12, 2010 2:56 a.m.

    Oh thank god... the video scared the living crap out of a student whos just come to understand polygons in all their not really all that intricate beauty, and can mould them into fantastic things that make him very happy inside, and then your explination made him happy again ^_^ Tomorrow I shall celebrate by lofting 6 splines to make beautiful vines and then I'll model some intricate little leaves and cover the vines in them, then maybe a few textures and yes, I may end up bump mapping all those little textures to fake some intricate geometry on those vines and leaves, and it'll make me happy inside.
  • gulfcoastfella - March 12, 2010 2:05 a.m.

    Polygons started out with no animation and distortion; why should we expect this technology to be any different? If they're smart enough to come up with this new system for static modeling, they're clearly smart enough to come up with a tweening system to integrate later resulting in animation of these extreme detail environments.
  • AnonymouZ - March 11, 2010 6:40 p.m.

    if there's anything i'm willing to trow my money at... it's this goddamn company! GET ME STOCKS< OR GET ME DEATH!... unless, wait, what?... there's no animation to your unlimited detail?... well, fuck that then. however... a world w/out polygons IS a world worth dreaming ai'nt it attic pop?
  • D0CCON - March 11, 2010 6:36 p.m.

    I just say all objects should have 86 quintillion polygons in them and we'll call it a day.
  • philipshaw - March 11, 2010 1:27 p.m.

    I hope so; don't want to go back to the days of PS1 and N64 where everything looked blurry
  • 4fromK - March 11, 2010 9:27 a.m.

    sounds great. I have a huge hardon for voxels, and these seem to be in essence more streamlined voxels.
  • sepirothpk - March 11, 2010 7:30 a.m.

    Either way, the screens will still not get a perfectly smooth image since the screens use pixels to display. Think about it. The data might create a smooth image, but then it comes out the screen which translates them into little squares based on which colour is more common
  • Hexateuch - March 11, 2010 3:48 a.m.

    Well, obviously stretching the truth they may be; but I say we use unlimited detail technology on all our stationary bits, then use the left over power for extremely detailed polygonal characters and such.
  • HunterWolf84 - March 11, 2010 12:59 a.m.

    Neat stuff, but considering Outcast used Voxel tech a long time ago (and looked pretty damn mind-blowing for its time and very scalable too) i really don't understand the difference between the Voxels used back then and the new tech here. Sure they only used it to render the Terrain (which seems in line with the fact it is very hard to animate anything with voxels) but still i wonder why not so many games used the Voxel tech on its landscapes if it is this effective and detailed.
  • Tasty_Pasta - March 10, 2010 11:06 p.m.

    It sounds pretty good. But wouldn't using billions of points to make an object instead of thousands polygons take up a lot more disk space?
  • bonerachieved - March 10, 2010 10:50 p.m.

    Very interesting, but the point is it can't be animated. It doesn't matter how life-like something looks if it doesn't move it isn't alive.
  • loonyman978 - March 10, 2010 10:40 p.m.

    For a guy who seems to know a lot about graphics and stuff, he seems to have a extrememly basic knowledge of consoles - "new nintendos"?!! Since when do you plural nintendo?
  • PopPopInTheAttic - March 10, 2010 10:26 p.m.

    Alright, bring on another Myst remake with unlimited something somethings! ReCaptcha: dangerously Hawaiian
  • Destruco33 - March 10, 2010 9:49 p.m.

    Sounds cool. It will make for pretty sideshow presentations
  • Phazon117 - March 10, 2010 9:46 p.m.

    Interesting to say the least.

Showing 1-16 of 16 comments

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