What happens when we can whip up movie-grade CGI in real time?

How life-like CGI will revolutionize more than movies

Nvidia’s showed off some amazing demonstrations during the keynote at it’s GPU Conference this week, but one in particular really caught my eye. It demonstrated how far 3D graphics have come in bringing 3D-animated characters up to par with real-life film.

First, the company showcased an attractive female fairy – scantily clad of course – created by an earlier technology. Her face looked almost real, but was still kind of creepy (personally it was the first time I noticed, apparently I was looking at other things). Next up, they showed a bald man’s head floating in space, and I suddenly saw the difference: The guy wasn’t anywhere near as interesting to watch! OK, he was more real looking if you got around the whole “floating head” thing. Finally, they showcased the tiger in the Life of Pi, which was almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The point: Soon, we’ll be able to render in virtual people and animals that are indistinguishable from real ones.

Obviously we can create very realistic things using render farms today. About 80 percent of the tiger scenes in Life of Pi were fake, and I’ll bet you can’t tell which ones (except by figuring out that in certain scenes, a real tiger would have made Pi cat food).

We’re now talking about rendering this amount of detail in real time, not several days, weeks, or months. That means a number of new applications for computer-generate characters – not just movies – are now just around the corner. Let’s take a look at what some of this tech could make possible.

Insane video calls

It is easy to imagine that you could create a video persona that would never age, never need makeup, and never need to dress up. It would always look perfectly turned out and near flawless. I say “near flawless,” because if we were truly flawless, it wouldn’t look real. With this tech, you could feel comfortable doing a video call any time during the day or night and always look like you were dressed for work and in your office, even though you might be in your pajamas, hung over, or talking from your bed.

Want to call in sick? You can look like you’re laid up in the hospital when you’re actually in Las Vegas hanging out near the pool. But it doesn’t have to just be you making the changes. Don’t like the looks or sex of the person you are talking to? Swap them out for your favorite actor, favorite fantasy figure, or favorite animal, each looking believable and realistic.

Just think what you could do to your boss’s image, your sibling’s image, or the image of your ex-spouse. I’m thinking we’ll all need to learn not to share what you’re seeing, and to avoid laughing at inappropriate times.

Gaming squared

The possibilities of this technology get even more interesting when we get to gaming, particularly massive online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. With the addition of a video camera and a decent GPU, suddenly your game character has facial expressions. As you talk into a headset, your avatar looks like it is realistically enunciating every word. With a technology like Kinect, when you get into a battle, you can actually step away from the keyboard and get into a physical battle, creating a much more realistic experience for both you and the folks standing around you in the game.

Oculus Rift

When we add this level of realism to the game, along with realistic weather, shadows, and scenery, suddenly you are in a world that starts to appear indistinguishable from the real one. Add a head-mounted display like the amazing Oculus Rift and we are almost to the virtual-reality experience we saw on the old Star Trek: The Next Generation show. That would just be amazing, though you’d have to incorporate sensors to get the facial expressions right.

Wrapping up

It looks like the timing for this new level of reality is around the 2015 time frame. If you’re like me, that is too long to wait to have your mind blown. But the idea of being able to appear like anyone on a video conference or inside a photorealistic video game is a game changer.

I imagine we’ll look back in the 2020s and wonder how people could stand playing the games we have today, and who would even think of doing a video call without abstracting the image behind a realistic avatar with a preselected beautiful background? I hope you’ll ponder this while I ponder why the hell Nvidia replaced the hot fairy with the floating head of a bald guy. I’m guessing someone’s wife got pissed.