Tuesday, 28 February 2017

More Virtual Photography

About a year ago, I talked about how virtual photography was going to become increasingly important, providing activities in games that are not purely about that mode of "first person shooting" (eg Pokemon Snap, Afrika). As the scope of the worlds seen last generation in the likes of GTA V is expanded and further detailed in more diverse settings, as rendering technology pushes further towards simulating the tone of different aesthetics, and simply as we get more used to taking breaks in virtual spaces that fully immerse us... all of this pushes towards a need to come back with holiday snaps to remind us of our trip and share with friends.

Since then, we've seen continued use of the occasional photo modes on console (on top of the baked-in Share API for screenshot and video capture) and a push for a simple photography API by nVidia  (almost zero work to integrate is the claim, just stop your game-state tick function, point at a function that starts a new render process, and hook up the position/FoV controls). Unfortunately, there aren't that many games that have dedicated the time to integrate Ansel into their engine (not even all of the games which announced support initially). On the red side, there seems to have been no work to clone the API and so unlock parity for AMD users (and incentivise developers who don't just focus on options for the 70% of desktops on team green). Hopefully this year will involve some movement there, now AMD have finished building their GeForce Experience clone in-house (rather than relying on bundling adware to provide video capture). Intel are unlikely to react but also most people interested in taking immersive shots of their virtual trips are unlikely to be locked to Intel GPUs (usually used for gaming in thin or low end laptops where it is the only option).

A somewhat unexpected (to me, for the perspective of mass appeal) area where technology has converged is VR. While there are still not many AAA experiences in VR and so that additional level of immersion has not focused demand for photography tools (that demand must be coming - surely Valve are working on their own Ansel for Vive users?), there is movement in the other direction. All Ansel titles offer a 360 shot mode that spins the camera and stitches the output into an equirectangular projection shot - the thing you want if you've got PlayStation VR or a phone headset for portable VR and just want to quickly share a view with friends. No, it's not a great experience as it's a static shot so head translation movement feels wrong (as the scene doesn't change when your perspective does) but to just quickly rotate around and look at a scene, this stuff shows off a game in a way that makes you feel like you could start playing.

Not only am I finding myself playing with composition and doing traditional photography in games, I'm also looking for impressive vistas and just going there to take a quick 360 shot. In the real world, I only care about composition, because doing a proper seamless 360 shot is non-trivial with a standard camera (doing several zoom shots to stitch together later, because I don't have infinite sensor resolution to get all the details in a single wide-angle shot, is about as far as I go). In the virtual world, it's just a mode to select and hit capture in a frozen world. Then I can pass around a headset that allows anyone to look around at that vista. The 8192 x 4096 maximum output resolution is sufficient for all the current headsets, although they are maybe missing some future-proofing (and any quality options from downscaling if the game doesn't already super-sample the output) by not offering higher resolution options and not also capturing a depth layer (one day we may be able to do some basic, cheap translation VR stuff with fixed images that feels ok just by having a depth buffer and so turning the 360 photo into a point cloud). For now, it's something I hadn't really thought about as VR arrived and even became easy to share via phone headsets.

"Look where I found myself last night!" *15MB PNG attached* [Google ad to buy the game in question]