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Advanced Collision Detection Techniques

March 30, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Since the advent of computer games, programmers have continually devised ways to simulate the world more precisely. Pong, for instance, featured a moving square (a ball) and two paddles. Players had to move the paddles to an appropriate position at an appropriate time, thus rebounding the ball toward the opponent and away from the player. The root of this basic operation is primitive(by today’s standards) collision detection. Today’s games are much more advanced than Pong, and most are based in 3D. Collision detection in 3D is many magnitudes more difficult to implement than a simple 2D Pong game. The experience of playing some of the early flight simulators illustrated how bad collision detection can ruin a game. Flying through a mountain peak and surviving isn’t very realistic. Even some recent games have exhibited collision problems. Many game players have been disappointed by the sight of their favorite heroes or heroines with parts of their bodies inside rigid walls. Even worse, many players have had the experience of being hit by a rocket or bullet that was “not even close” to them. Because today’s players demand increasing levels of realism, we developers will have to do some hard thinking in order to approximate the real world in our game worlds as closely as possible.

This article will assume a basic understanding of the geometry and math involved in collision detection. At the end of the article, I’ll provide some references in case you feel a bit rusty in this area. I’ll also assume that you’ve read Jeff Lander’s Graphic Content columns on collision detection (“Crashing into the New Year,” ; “When Two Hearts Collide,”; and “Collision Response: Bouncy, Trouncy, Fun,” ). I’ll take a top-down approach to collision detection by first looking at the whole picture and then quickly inspecting the core routines. I’ll discuss collision detection for two types of graphics engines: portal-based and BSP-based engines. Because the geometry in each engine is organized very differently from the other, the techniques for world-object collision detection are very different. The object-object collision detection, for the most part, will be the same for both types of engines, depending upon your current implementation. After we cover polygonal collision detection, we’ll examine how to extend what we’ve learned to curved objects.

The Big Picture

To create an optimal collision detection routine, we have to start planning and creating its basic framework at the same time that we’re developing a game’s graphics pipeline. Adding collision detection near the end of a project is very difficult. Building a quick collision detection hack near the end of a development cycle will probably ruin the whole game because it’ll be impossible to make it efficient. In a perfect game engine, collision detection should be precise, efficient, and very fast. These requirements mean that collision detection has to be tied closely to the scene geometry management pipeline. Brute force methods won’t work — the amount of data that today’s 3D games handle per frame can be mind-boggling. Gone are the times when you could check each polygon of an object against every other polygon in the scene.

Let’s begin by taking a look at a basic game engine loop (Listing 1). A quick scan of this code reveals our strategy for collision detection. We assume that collision has not occurred and update the object’s position. If we find that a collision has occurred, we move the object back and do not allow it to pass the boundary (or destroy it or take some other preventative measure). However, this assumption is too simplistic because we don’t know if the object’s previous position is still available. You’ll have to devise a scheme for what to do in this case (otherwise, you’ll probably experience a crash or you’ll be stuck). If you’re an avid game player, you’ve probably noticed that in some games, the view starts to shake when you approach a wall and try to go through it. What you’re experiencing is the effect of moving the player back. Shaking is the result of a coarse time gradient (time slice).

Listing 1. Extremely Simplified Game Loop


for (each_object)
calc new_object_position
{based on velocity accel. etc.}
if (collide_with_other_objects())
new_object_position = old_position();
{or if destroyed object remove it etc.}


Figure 1. Time gradient and collision tests.

But our method is flawed. We forgot to include the time in our equation. Figure 1 shows that time is just too important to leave out. Even if an object doesn’t collide at time t1 or t2, it may cross the boundary at time t where t1 < t < t2. This is especially true when we have large jumps between successive frames (such as when the user hit an afterburner or something like that). We’ll have to find a good way to deal with &nbspdiscrepancy as well.

Figure 2. Solid created from the space that an object spans over a given time frame.

We could treat time as a fourth dimension and do all of our calculations in 4D. These calculations can get very complex, however, so we’ll stay away from them. We could also create a solid out of the space that the original object occupies between time t1 and t2 and then test the resulting solid against the wall (Figure 2).

An easy approach is to create a convex hull around an object’s location at two different times. This approach is very inefficient and will definitely slow down your game. Instead of constructing a convex hull, we could construct a bounding box around the solid. We’ll come back to this problem once we get accustomed to several other techniques.

Another approach, which is easier to implement but less accurate, is to subdivide the given time interval in half and test for intersection at the midpoint. This calculation can be done recursively for each resulting half, too. This approach will be faster than the previous methods, but it’s not guaranteed to catch all of the collisions.

Another hidden problem is the collide_with_other_objects() routine, which checks whether an object intersects any other object in the scene. If we have a lot of objects in the scene, this routine can get very costly. If we have to check each object against all other objects in the scene, we’ll have to make roughly

(N choose 2) comparisons. Thus, the number of comparisons that we’ll need to perform is of order N2 (or O(N2)). But we can avoid performing O(N2) pair-wise comparisons in one of several ways. For instance, we can divide our world into objects that are stationary (collidees) and objects that move (colliders) even with a v=0. For example, a rigid wall in a room is a collidee and a tennis ball thrown at the wall is a collider. We can build two spatial trees (one for each group) out of these objects, and then check which objects really have a chance of colliding. We can even restrict our environment further so that some colliders won’t collide with each other — we don’t have to compute collisions between two bullets, for example. This procedure will become more clear as we move on, for now, let’s just say that it’s possible. (Another method for reducing the number of pair-wise comparisons in a scene is to build an octree. This is beyond the scope of this article, but you can read more about octrees in Spatial Data Structures: Quadtree, Octrees and Other Hierarchical Methods, mentioned in the “For Further Info” section at the end of this article.) Now lets take a look at portal-based engines and see why they can be a pain in the neck when it comes to collision detection.

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