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Outerra: A seamless planet rendering engine Exclusive
 Outerra : A seamless planet rendering engine
January 31, 2014 | By Mike Rose

January 31, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

There's something rather special in the works in the rapidly expanding country of Slovakia, as one team of developers have been taking that expansion literally, and building entire planets for themselves.

Outerra is a 3D planetary engine that aims to produce seamless planet rendering, allowing users to zoom into a rendered planet from space, all the way to the surface of the planet, with full rendering on the surface.

"The engine itself has been in development for about three years already," Brano Kemen of the Outerra project tells me. "But the core concepts actually come from a long time ago, going back to when there were no programmable GPUs yet, when it wasn't entirely clear that the tech was going to be suitable for the future hardware."

When I ask Kemen whether it's been difficult keeping the project up to speed with all the latest tech over the years, he smiles and says, "It was actually the other way around. We didn't have to keep up with the evolving tech - we were basically waiting for it to catch up."

Planetary domination

Outerra is primarily meant to be used as a video game engine and simulator, based on a combined procedural terrain generator that is able to render real-size planets in full detail range, going from the space down to blades of grass."

"Its distinct feature is the ability to use real satellite data to get the real terrain shape," notes Kemen, "and combine it with procedural fractal-based algorithms that refine the detail down to centimeter details."

Indeed, if you grab the tech demo for the engine right now, you can pick any co-ordinates in the real world, and the engine will zoom to that real-world location in Outerra -- minus any manmade landmarks, of course.

"It enables games and simulators to take place on a full planetary scale, on realistically sized worlds," Kemen says of Outerra's capabilities. "While some flight simulators can already render the whole world, they are limited in the detail they can consistently produce. Terrain textures will start to blur from certain altitude, and you start losing the feeling of height and scale; the world actually feels much smaller because of that."

Regular game engines usually provide very minute graphical details, but the level size and visibility is limited, reasons the dev -- and this is where Outerra steps in.

"In comparison to the conventional engines, Outerra scales much better," he explains. "The detail range (a consistently achievable ratio between the smallest and the largest world geometry) in Outerra is roughly 1:1 billion, while for standard game levels it's around 1:100000."

"This means you can approach Earth with its diameter of 12 thousand kilometers, pick a spot anywhere to land, and seamlessly get centimeter level details on the ground."

For example, says, Kemen, Outerra could potentially be used to create a global combined space, air, land and sea simulator, where players are all playing entirely different games integrated into each other, with no compromise on the amount of detail needed for each.

outerra 1.jpg"Or global strategic games where you can actually zoom to the ground level of a realistically sized world," he adds.

Where Outerra is the engine, Anteworld is the game that is acting as an example of what can be achieved with the engine. Currently in alpha and available for download, the game is aimed at showing exactly what the engine can do.

"There were several goals that it aimed to achieve," says Kemen. "To show how it works and performs and to promote it, to show that the technology isn't vaporware, and to give our fans and supporters an early access to it, getting valuable feedback in the process."

"For me it was always the idea of being able to experience a virtual world, or the real one but in different ages, that was driving me forward with the idea of a world renderer."

"Right now Anteworld is little more than a sandbox game where you can explore the world and use a few tools to modify the scenery, build settlements and roads, and try several vehicles," he adds. "It's always supposed to be a test bed for the technology, but over time it will evolve into a fully playable game, or into multiple game modes, possibly integrating several standalone games as a reward to our early supporters."

He notes that developers can already download the alpha and use this sandbox to determine how their future games could use the engine. Some devs are already utilizing the engine to great effect -- The Middle Earth Digital Elevation Model from two third-party developers uses Outerra to model the entirety of Tolkien's famous Middle Earth universe.

"[The ME-DEM team] are enthusiastic about modeling fantasy worlds, and even before hearing about Outerra they went to great pains to create a detailed digital model of the Middle-Earth, just for their fun," notes Kemen. Outerra allowed them to achieve their goal.

outerra 2.jpgWhile the engine's primary use is for video games, Kemen says that other industries have been in touch. An artist inquired about using the engine to shoot movie backdrops, for example, while the engine might potentially be used to simulate environmental changes and scientific visualizations.

And with the newly added Oculus Rift support, Kemen says that it's possible to truly immerse yourself in an Outerra world. "Outerra was largely founded on the same principles [as Rift]," he says. "For me it was always the idea of being able to experience a virtual world, or the real one but in different ages, that was driving me forward with the idea of a world renderer."

He adds, "Even with the limitations of the first version of Rift, sitting in the cockpit of MiG aircraft while taking off is an amazing experience. I was grinning like a child the first time I did it - then again, when my body reacted to knowing I was about to hit a mountain..."

The end game with Outerra is to license the engine out to as many projects and developers as possible. It's already been licensed to a number of specialist simulation projects, but once the "proof of engine" is fully complete, Kemen plans to make it publically available too.

"We have several other game and simulation projects in very early stages as well," he says, "many of them in cooperation with other qualified developers. The engine licensing was never our primary goal - we mainly want to do cool stuff with it."

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E McNeill
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I've tried the demo with the Oculus Rift, and it's quite special. Even just flying around looking at the mountains and trees feels great, and it feels like the world is limitless.

Todd Boyd
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Mind = blown

Chris Liguz
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Next steps...
This modded to support multiple worlds + Freelancer gameplay!

Kevin Fishburne
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They should have disabled fog/atmosphere in that demo video so you could see a clearly-defined horizon as the camera backed out into space. Regardless that's pretty damn impressive. I wonder if Chris Roberts has picked it up yet. Seems like a nice fit for his goals.

Jennis Kartens
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Mind = Reminded.

Interesting stuff, reminds me of the now 7 or 8 year old Infinity-Project that apparently too became kind of an engine thingy:

Mark Fronstin
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That could really change the face of an RTS. Well done/.

James Yee
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The Kerbal Space program would love this. :)

Phil Maxey
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Star Wars Battlefront 3?

Michael G
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Calculations in Cryengine 3 become unstable beyond about 16km sq, so how exactly are relative positions supposed to be calculated across millions or even billions of units?

Michael Thornberg
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You calculate in the section you're in. Splitting works with any technology.

Florian Putz
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Easy, u dnt translate the player - player position is always at pos (0,0,0). The rest is just playing with around numbers. Would supposedly also work with cryengine. Oh and splitting, like Michael said.

John Wallace
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Something for Starforge II or any adventure game with space...

John Wallace
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I got hooked as soon I flew through the morning light across the earth, appreciating the night scene that I would only see in a commercial aircraft and beyond, and seeing the whole of the Earth.

Its only missing the Earth at Night lights and the Aurora Borealis.

This truly has great potential in education. It's just fun flying through space and I can see any student enjoying this program as they learn geography. Students raise altitude as they correctly identify the different layers of the atmosphere. They unlock new area's if they label the different biome types from space.

This is beautiful, I support!

Maria Jayne
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Impressive, it reminds me a little of Supreme Commander or the scope of Arma games. Also 'No Mans Sky' jumps to mind, so much potential for video games.

Michiel Hendriks
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It looks like hightmaps only. So, no overhanging rocks or caves.
How about persistence? Will revisiting an area put the trees etc. in the same place?

Brano Kemen
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Overhangs are actually possible (using horizontal fractal displacement, Caves, tunnels will be done using extra functionality for generating geometry.

Terrain and all procedural stuff is generated in persistent manner, a time-dependent random generator would make it useless.

Jonathan Murphy
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There are bigger surprises later in 2014.

Nick Harris
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I think those using procedural content generation should take care not to make their environments unmanageably enormous, or devoid of incident. The buzz gained from this limitless freedom will soon wear thin if there is nothing to do, or so much is going on (given all the space for it to happen in) that it just becomes a drag to participate.

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime looks more fun to me than Star Citizen.
Hyper Light Drifter looks more fun to me than Destiny.
Galcon Fusion is more fun than EVE: Online.

sean lindskog
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Really impressive work.

Maurício Gomes
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Now I want to see Noctis V running this =D

Merc Hoffner
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Jonnathan Hilliard
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