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Event Commentary: Nvision & The Ship In The Bottle

Event Commentary: Nvision & The Ship In The Bottle Exclusive

August 27, 2008 | By Simon Carless

August 27, 2008 | By Simon Carless
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Gamasutra publisher Simon Carless had a chance to visit Nvidia's Nvision 'visual computing' festival in San Jose, and brings this report on the show, real-time graphics creation, and the sometimes forgotten demo-scene.]

Since it's - well - about 300 yards from my house, I had no excuse not to wander down to NVision 2008 in San Jose today to check out the graphics card maker's first ever 'visual computing' festival, encompassing everything from auto manufacturers (yes, Daimler is here) through game tools, competitive consumer gaming galore and, gadzooks, even the demo-scene.

It's an interesting melange of different industries and interests - both developer and consumer-focused - which spreads out across the San Jose Convention Center and the surrounding hotels. Some of the highlights from a PR perspective include astronauts (Buzz Aldrin screening a 3D moon-related movie), Battlestar Galactica actresses, and the Mythbusters giving out prizes at the closing ceremony tomorrow.

And yes, if you squint at the title picture, you can see that they've dyed the main fountain outside the Center a virulent shade of Nvidia green, to match the green carpets outside the venue. Here's a close-up (below) - one presumes that the EPA is on its way (or it's harmless coloring).

On Tuesday, at least, the Convention Center is modestly busy, with the main areas being an exhibition hall for third-party technology companies (hardware companies, tools, etc), a large LAN party/Electronic Sports World Cup areas, with plenty of committed young gentlemen playing Quake, racing games, and so on.

In addition, there are myriad meeting rooms where you could see Tim Sweeney demonstrating Unreal Engine 3, panels specifically on Nvidia tech, more academic and research-related content (especially around the CUDA technology), and much more besides. The intention is for a kind of collegiate atmosphere of creativity, with some product promotion built in, naturally -- I think it's an interesting concept, abstractly.

While there are games such as Mirror's Edge and Crysis Warhead playable on the exhibit show floor, and game tools companies presenting at the adjoining hotels, something that stood out for me was the NVScene event, described on the website as "...the largest-ever US gathering of creative minds interested in demoscene, machinima, and digital art."

Well, while I hear Monday's sessions were extremely well-attended, I think it's probably safe to say that the actual attendance at NVScene isn't what some might hope. That may be due to the lack of a major, cogent demoscene in North America - it's always been the Europeans that lead things - rather than any intrinsic problems on the organizers' part.

And it may be due to the demo-scene (non-interactive art created in real-time on the computer) being essentially past its sell-by date in terms of cultural excitement, much as it pains me to say so, being a demo-scene veteran. Nowadays, things other than demos are the most exciting CG-created things you can watch on your PC, and that didn't used to be the case.

Nonetheless, the relative paucity of turnout certainly doesn't shortcircuit the excellent presentations, many of which are being recorded for posterity. After all, as I discussed before, Chris Hecker and Dan Moskowitz of Spore find the knowledge inherent in demo construction important enough to turn up and lecture -- and part of that is down to the insane ninja coding needed to generate a lot of these newer realtime demos.

One of the highlights thus far - and a flagship for both the amazing code skills and what I'd describe as the 'ship in a bottle problem' for the demo scene, was a talk from Dierk "Chaos" Ohlerich of Farbrausch. The German demo-scene group are possibly the most technically astounding demo creators of the last ten years, thanks to their work with procedural content.

- What am I talking about? Well, try watching their demo 'Debris' (pictured left) on YouTube, even, and remember all the way through it that it's created in just 177k, using an insane custom tool, Werkkzeug. On NVScene's HD projector and large sound system, Ohlerich's replaying of the award-winning 2007 demo was pretty much mindblowing.

It's definitely true that Farbrausch's amazing procedural creation tool allows you to do things that just wouldn't be possible if you fired up Photoshop or 3D Studio Max (reminder, what procedural means here is that no pre-rolled textures or shapes have gone into the demo. It's all created using mathematical formulae, extrusions, Perlin noise, and so on.)

It's also somewhat of a breakthrough to have a completely self-contained tool for demo making - well, RSI Demo Maker was one about 20 years ago, but that's hardly counted. The point is, with the correct flow, you can make almost anything from scratch. But another timely question nowadays is... why, and who will care? Isn't the final product the equivalent of putting a model ship in a bottle - a big 'how did they do that' impressed moment, but no real takeaway?

Well, I do care, because it's art, and it's beautiful, and because wringing that kind of performance out of your PC in real-time is breathtaking. In fact, you should be downloading the executable, not looking at the YouTube version, and that's where the demo paradigm starts to fall down nowadays. Demos arrived when there was no streaming video on the Internet, and the subtlety of something being created in real-time wasn't necessary to explain - because that's the only way it could arrive on your screen from your Commodore 64 or Amiga.

Ohlerich, a beautifully acerbic German, expectorated at some point in the talk: "Almost everything we do almost kills us." But he went on to say that it was worth it, and for those who understand what a big undertaking it was to create the demo (or their previous 96k FPS game, .kkrieger procedurally), there may be things to build on and use in other arenas.

In some ways, Farbrausch's predicament - and why I might feel the need to overexplain why their accomplishment is important - is a wider metaphor for why Nvidia's entire message at Nvision is hard. People - that is to say, average people - are just not impressed by graphics or 'visual computing' unless it improves their entertainment experience or directly touches their lives in some way, and tangibility is still thin on the ground - see the success of the Wii, and a recent Game Developer magazine editorial.

But there are ways in which this 'ship in a bottle' tech is breaking out and actually making things that couldn't be done before. For example, the Spore folks used procedural texturing and other procedural elements heavily in the dynamic creation in the Creature Creator - one of the first times that really complex procedural elements have been successfully implemented in games.

This is an interactive leap made possible by the kind of real-time elements the demo-scene has been playing with for some time, and it's a hint at some of the really neat, sophisticated advances that may be coming - as long as they're actually pertinent to the audience.

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