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Procedural Rendering on Playstation 2
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Procedural Rendering on Playstation 2

September 26, 2001 Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

This paper describes the design and coding of a program to generate instances of a procedural Lifeform, based on the work of William Latham in the late 1980’s. The sneaky thing is that this tutorial is not really about procedural rendering, it’s more about the real-world experience of designing and writing programs on PS2.

Why choose a procedural model? Nearly all of the early example code that ships with the T10000 development kit is something along the lines of “send this magic lump of precalculated data at this magic bit of VU code”. It does show off the speed of the machine and shows that techniques are possible but it’s not very useful if you want to learn how to produce your own code. By choosing a procedural model to program there are several benefits:

  • Very little can be precalculated. The program has to explicitly build up all the data structures, allowing more insights into how things are put together.
  • It can generate a lot of polygons quickly. Procedural models are scalable to the point where they can swamp even the fastest graphics system.
  • It’s more interesting than yet another Fractal Landscape or Particle System. I just wanted to be a little different. The algorithm is only marginally more complex than a particle system with emitters.
  • The algorithm has many ways it can be parallelized. The algorithm has some interesting properties that could allow large parts of it to be run on a VU, taking just the numerical description of a creature as inputs and generating the polygons directly. I have only space to explore one way of producing the models, but there are several other equally good separation points.
  • It’s been over ten years. I thought it would be fun to try an old technique with modern hardware. Evolutionary Art was once a painstaking, time consuming search through the genome space, previewing and finally rendering with raytracing. Being able to generate 60 new Lifeforms a second opens up whole new areas of animation and interaction.

This paper will start by assuming you are familiar with the internal structure of the PS2 – EE Core, VIF0, VIF1, GIF, DMAC and Paths 1, 2 and 3. It will also assume you know the formats for GIF, VIF and DMA tags as they have been discussed endlessly in previous tutorials.

Simplified PS2 Block Diagram


First, a look at the type of model we’re going to be rendering. The ideas for thesemodels come from the organic artworks of William Latham.

Latham (in the days before his amazing sideburns) was recruited in 1987 from a career lecturing in Fine Art by a team of computer graphics engineers at the IBM UK Scientific Centre at Winchester, UK. He was recruited because of his earlier work in “systems of art” where he generated huge paper-based tree diagrams of forms that followed simple grammars. Basic forms like cubes, spheres and cylinders would have transformations applied to them – “scoop” took a chunk out of a form, “bulge” would add a lobe to the side, etc. These painstaking hand drawn production trees grew to fill enormous sheets of paper and were displayed in the exhibition “The Empire of Form”.

The team at IBM Winchester wanted to use his insights into rule based art to generate computer graphics and so Latham was teamed with programmer Stephen Todd in order to make some demonstrations of his ideas. The resulting programs Form Build and Mutator were used to create images for the exhibitions “The Conquest of Form” and “Mutations”.

The final system was documented in a 1989 IBM Systems Journal paper (vol.28, no.4) and in the book “Evolutionary Art and Computers”, from which all the technical details in this tutorial are taken. (Latham later went on to found the company Computer Artworks who have recently released the game Evolva).

The aim of this tutorial is to render a class of Lifeform that Latham called a “Lobster” as efficiently as possible on the Playstation2. The Lobster is a useful object for exploring procedural rendering as it is a composite object made three parts, head, backbone and ribcage, each of which is a fully parameterized procedural object.

An instance of the Lobster class.

In this talk I shall be using the Renderman standard names for coordinate spaces:

  • Object space – Objects are defined relative to their own origin. For example, a sphere might be defined as having a unit radius and centered around the origin (0,0,0).
  • World Space – A modeling transformation is used to position, scaled and orient objects into world space for lighting.
  • Camera Space – All objects in the world are transformed so that the camera is sitting at the origin looking down the positive z-axis.
  • Screen Space – A 2D space where coordinates range from –1.0..1.0 along the widest axis and takes into consideration the aspect ratio along the smallest axis.
  • Raster Space – A integer 2D space where increments of 1 map to single pixel steps.

The order of spaces is:
object -> world -> camera -> screen -> raster

Defining A Horn
The basic unit of rendering is the horn, named because of it’s similarity to the spiral forms of animal horns. A control parameter is swept from 0.0 to 1.0 along the horn and at fixed intervals along this line primitives are instanced – a sphere or a torus – according to an ordered list of parameterized transformation rules.

Here’s an example declaration from the book:

neck := horn
ribs (18)
torus (2.1, 0.4)
twist (40, 1)
stack (8.0)
bend (80)
grow (0.9) ;

An example horn.

The above declaration, exactly as it appears in the book, is written in a high level functional scripting language the IBM team used to define objects. We will have to translate this language into a form we can program in C++, so let’s start by analyzing the declaration line by line:

neck := horn

The symbol “neck” is defined by this horn. Symbols come into play later when we start creating linear lists of horns or use a horn as the input primitive for other production rules like “branch” or “ribcage”. At this point in the declaration the horn object is initialized to zero values.

ribs (18)

This horn has 18 ribs along it’s length. To generate the horn, an iterator will begin at the start position (see later, initially 0.0) and count up to 1.0, taking 18 steps along the way. At each step a copy of the current inform (input form) is generated. Internally, this interpolator value is known as m. The number of ribs need not be an integral number – in this implementation the first rib is always at the start position, then a fractional rib is generated, followed by the integer ribs. In effect, the horn grows from the root.

torus (2.1, 0.4)

This horn will use for it’s inform a torus of major radius 2.1 units and minor radius 0.4 units (remember that these values are just the radii, the bounding box size of the object is twice these values). In the original Form Build program this declaration can be any list of horns, composite forms or primitives which are instanced along the horn in the order they are declared (e.g. sphere, cube, torus, sphere, cube, torus, etc.), but for our purposes we will allow only a single primitive here. Extending the program to use generalized primitive lists is quite simple. Primitives are assumed to be positioned at the origin sitting on the x-z plane, right handed coordinate system.

twist (40, 1)

Now we begin the list of transformations that each primitive will undergo. These declarations specify the transform at the far end of the horn, so intermediate ribs will have to interpolate this transform along the horn using the iterator value m.

twist(angle,offset) is a compound transform that works like this:

  • translate the rib offset units along the x-axis.
  • rotate the result m*angle degrees around the y-axis.
  • translate that result –offset units along the x-axis.

The end result, at this stage, produces a spiral shaped horn sitting on the x-z plane with as yet no elevation.

stack (8.0)

This translates the rib upwards along the +y-axis. Note that although we have 18 ribs that are 0.8 units high (18 * 0.8 = 14.4), we’re packing them into a space 8.0 units high. Primitives will therefore overlap making a solid, space filling form.

bend (80)

This rotates each rib some fraction of 80 degrees around the z-axis as it grows. This introduces a bend to the left if you were looking down the –z-axis (right handed system).

grow (0.9)

This scales the rib by a factor of 0.9, shrinking each primitive by 10 percent. This is not to say that each rib will be 90 percent of the size of the previous rib, the 0.9 scale factor is for the whole horn transformation. In order to interpolate the scale factor correctly we need to calculate powf(0.9,m) where m is our interpolator.

At the end of this horn declaration we have defined three areas of information:

  1. The horn’s attributes (18 ribs, start counting at zero)
  2. The ordered list of input forms (in this case a single torus).
  3. The ordered list of transformations (twist, stack, bend, grow).

The order of declarations inside each area is important e.g. twist comes before stack, but between areas order is unimportant e.g. ribs(18) can be declared anywhere and overrides the previous declaration. This leads us to a design for a horn object, using the C++ STL, something like this:

Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

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