Friday, December 30, 2005

What 2006 will bring for the videogame industry - part II: Microsoft´s Xbox360

In the second installment of this trilogy, let´s turn to the Xbox360. I will add my predictions about the Nintendo Revolution in the coming days.

Launch date/price: Microsoft will reduce the console´s price by at least $50 (the core version perhaps even by $100), come christmas.

Pre-E3 press conference: At the pre-E3 press conference, there will be no significant news regarding the hardware or its price. The main focus will be on titles like ´Halo 3´, ´Gears of War´ and ´Too Human´. There will also be a strong emphasis on the online community. Most likely, there will be a number of new features added to Xbox Live, like hosted tournaments.

E3 showfloor: There will be around forty titles playable on the showfloor. None will show a significant improvement over the launch titles (the second generation games will not show before 2007). There will not be a playable version of ´Halo 3´.

Sales and reactions: The Xbox360 will continue to sell a decent amount in the US, next to none in Japan and there will be lacklustre sales in Europe. Altogether, the Xbox360 will sell around three million units, beating the PS3 by a margin of a million or so (mainly due to a reduced price near the end of the year).

Successes and setbacks: Microsoft´s biggest success with their new console will be their ability to reduce the price by christmas.

Their biggest setback will be the continued lack of games that utilize the multi-core chip architecture.

Conclusion: By the end of the year, Microsoft will be in a position to reduce their console´s price, which will enable them to top the PS3 sales by a decent margin. However, they will not be able to fully convince the majority gamers that the Xbox360 is a next-gen platform (by graphical standards, which is pretty much all the console has to offer).

What 2006 will bring for the videogame industry - part I: Sony´s PlayStation3

Being at the same inspired by PC Magazine´s and Games are fun´s idea, as well as amused and shocked by their conclusions, respectively, here are my own predictions for the coming year in videogames. Let´s start with the PlayStation3. I will add predictions about the other two consoles in the coming days.

Launch date/price: The PS3 will be delayed until at least the later summer, probably July or even August, when it will launch in Japan. The US market will most likely see the console in time for christmas. Europeans will have to wait until early 2007. The console will be priced between $400 and $500 and will soon be dubbed the ´PayStation´.

Pre-E3 press conference: At the pre-E3 press conference, Sony will expand on the titles shown a year ago. ´Killzone 2´, ´Metal Gear Solid 4´ and ´Unreal Tournament 2007´ will be presented as the killer apps for the console. There will be a more concrete showing of ´Eye Toy´ for the PS3 (using colour recognition), but the main focus of the presentation will be on games for the core gamers, as well as the usual talk of the PlayStation being the media hub of tomorrow´s living rooms. On a sidenote, a new controller design will be revealed. It will be more reminiscent of the classic PlayStation controller.

E3 showfloor: There will be between ten and fifteen playable games on the showfloor but, similarly to the Xbox360, the majority of general interest journalists will be disappointed with the look of the games. With studios still unfamiliar with multi-core development, they will not be able to deliver on the promise of the ´Unreal´ and ´Killzone 2´ demos shown the year before (again, like the Xbox360 titles compared to the first demos).

Sales and reactions: Consequently, the PS3 will have a similar launch to the Xbox360. Fans will buy it, casual gamers will not see enough of a difference between the PS3 launch titles and current PS2 games to make the investment. Also, the PS3 is the first PlayStation to lack Sony´s superior industrial design that consumers have gotten used to. The weak design and amateurish logo will not make consumers see the console as a style gadget. By the end of the year, Sony will have sold between two and three million consoles, a sobering result.

Successes and setbacks: Sony´s biggest success will be their marketing and PR. Though the expected PS3 sales will not materialize, publishers will not quickly lose faith in the PS3. They will be forced to consider the possibility of Sony slipping from the top spot. For the first time, they will have to question the inherent strength of the PlayStation brand. But in 2006, there will be no official changes in Sony´s third party support. It will continue undeterred.

The biggest setback for Sony in 2006 will be Blu Ray. Blu Ray and HD-DVD will battle it out for most of the year. But a number of companies that had pledged to only support Blu Ray will come out supporting both. By the end of the year, the tide will have turned slightly in favour of HD-DVD. Essentially, though, neither format will achieve any noteworthy market penetration.

Conclusion: 2006 will not be a successful year for Sony. The PlayStation3 will not live up to its expectations and sell only reasonably well. It will suffer from the lack of consumer interest in Blu Ray technology and from its sobering launch line-up. Publishers will continue to support Sony the way they have, but 2006 will be the year that faith in the PlayStation brand is starting to slip.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Zelda: Twilight Princess to feature Revolution extras, console to launch November 2006?

NGC magazine has news that the delayed Gamecube game The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess will feature extra content when played on the Revolution console. Obviously, this concerns compatibility with the Revolution controller. The magazine has also quoted an inside source stating that the console is due to launch in late 2006 and that the game - though still officially a Gamecube title - would be released around the same time. Here´s the story from the publisher´s official homepage:
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess will be playable on Nintendo's Revolution and will be released close to the console's launch date in the UK - which is confirmed as arriving in late 2006 - according to an exclusive news scoop in the latest issue of NGC.

While also still set for release on GameCube, the new Zelda adventure will contain special features enabling players to make use of Revolution's controller, so when the disc is inserted into Revolution it will give the player the option to use the next-gen console's radical device.
4 Color Rebellion quotes the original print magazine with more detail regarding the alleged launch (highlights added):
Back in September, Nintendo announced: “Our development team has decided to take extra time to add some incredible elements.” These were elements that Miyamoto and Zelda director Aonuma said were “simply far too good to leave out.” And they weren’t wrong.

NGC can exclusively reveal that Twilight Princess will be playable on the forthcoming Revolution using the upcoming console’s unique controller. Zelda will actually ‘bring in’ the Revolution by launching fairly close to the new system, which is set to be released around November of next year, according to our sources.

“But they also promised it would be out on Gamecube!” we hear you cry. Well, they weren’t lying. Twilight Pricess will be released on Gamecube - there’s no changing that fact. However, when you insert your disc into your Revolution, you’ll be given the option to use the Revolution’s controller, with all the advantages that this will bring.

So what’s the reason for all this? Well, it kind of makes sense. With Gamecube entering its twilight years, it gives retailers time to clear their Gamecube stock. And riding on the back of Revolution, it means that the game, which has now been in development for quite some time, will find as big an audience and gain the recognition it deserves - it will be the first port of call for those of us still with Gamecubes, and for those who have just bought a Revolution.
I myself regard it as inevitable that such an important title will have added value on the upcoming system. More so, it would only make sense to scrap the Gamecube version altogether and plan The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess as a Revolution launch title. However, Nintendo has been quick to deny this, speaking to SPOnG. Perhaps, though, we will see a dual launch. I cannot imagine added content without added graphics detail. If only business-wise, it would be a missed opportunity.

Sources: NGC magazine, 4 Color Rebellion, SPOnG
Thanks to: SPOnG, Revo Europe

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Slides reveal first Hollywood details?

These three slides were linked to by an anonymous poster in the comments to my previous post. I want to share them as quickly as possible, that is why I will keep my comments brief.

My first reaction to all of them was that they were fakes. However, I checked the name of the person given in the top one and a Vineet Goel really works for ATI research. They are really based in Orlando, Florida. And his area of expertise really is displaced subdivision surfaces. This strongly suggests that they are real.

The rest of the content could have been faked one way or the other. The backgrounds (the second image showing a streetsign reading ´Broadway´) may have been ripped from some site, the patents mentioned are the ones that have been circulating the community for weeks now. The content seems authentic to me, but even that may have been replicated from somewhere. Each aspect on its own could have been faked rather easily. All aspects combined, though, mean that faking these slides would have been quite a hard job.

Most importantly, though, it would have been almost impossible to simply copy the name of the ATI developer from the web. I had big trouble finding out the address and telephone number of ATI research. There are no such details on the ATI website.

I am now in contact with them and I believe that my request to them was worded cleverly enough to warrant a reply. Moreover one that will give away those slides as either real or fake. Please stick around. I will post the findings as soon as I get them.

What strikes me as odd is that one slide´s title suggests that they have something to do with Famitsu, the Japanese gaming magazine. However, a file name is no indication of anything. I am disregarding this aspect for the moment. Again, my preliminary verdict is that they are real.

EDIT Now, there was mention of the ATI semo ToyShop 1.1.. Thanks to Pekka for finding the link so fast. If you look at the video clip, you will notice that it is the same environment as the backgrounds to slide one and two and the inserts shown in slide three. Yet the camera never shows the screenshot that is the background to the second slide ( I haven´t checked the others). Unless there is another demo in the same environment showing that very still frame, the person who made those slides must have access to the 3D data underlying the demo. As shoddily as the slides are done, it seems very likely to me that these are real.

(I apologize for not being able to post a decent slide from the clip to compare it with the slide. I tried to capture from the clip with every player I got and all I had was the player´s frame and black inside. Sorry.)

EDIT Thanks to an anonymous poster in the comments, there is now this document, which is a Powerpoint presentation in PDF format for the Xenos processor (did I really call it Xenon in the past?). In it, you will find the dinosaur-like creature from slide 1 and almost the entire text verbatim. Also, there is a typo in one of the slides, something I looked out for but overlooked. Finally, the count on the texture array slide is wrong (counting from 0 to 128 equals 129 faces). All kudos to Anonym. I guess that proves this fake. I should be even more careful in the future. I rarely take a shot like this one. But I had such a hard time finding out whether ATI even has a research lab in Orlando (let alone finding an address and telephone numbers) that I couldn´t imagine some faker getting there before me.

However, there is still the issue of the demo screenshot, which makes me wonder. But I guess that will be found in time.

Sources: Slide 1, Slide 2, Slide 3
Thanks to: Anonymous

Monday, December 19, 2005

Is ´Fast14´ the last secret?

I have been alerted to another interesting aspect that may feature in the Revolution. Product_Number_18 came across the keyword ´Fast14´, which turns out to be a ´dynamic logic process´ which makes for an extremely efficient chip architecture. Its inventors, a company called Intrinsity, claim that it improves the speed by two to three times:
Fast14® Technology (is) a unique style of digital logic that delivers multi-GHz performance from standard CMOS manufacturing processes. Ordinarily, such high performance logic requires large teams of engineers that spend years producing handcrafted custom circuits. With over 60 patents issued, Intrinsity's chip design technology delivers power efficient, multi-GHz performance in a highly automated design flow enabling quick time to market from small design teams.
In February 2004, Intrinsity signed a deal with ATI, licensing this technology to them. Here is what ATI said about this deal in an Intrinsity press release:
"We're combining ATI's pioneering leadership in consumer technologies with Intrinsity's proven chip-design technology to create innovative products with stunning levels of visualization and integration," said Bob Feldstein, Vice President of Engineering, ATI Technologies, Inc. "We selected Intrinsity after determining that Fast14 Technology can deliver up to four times the performance per silicon dollar when compared with standard design approaches."
Subsequently, the Xbox forums went haywire about the possibility that ´Fast14´ might be included in the Xbox360 (then tentatively titled ´Xbox 2´). Immediately after the licensing deal, The Inquirer wrote:
Now let's put the pieces all together. Microsoft has chosen IBM, a long time maker of mainframes and supercomputers to manufacture the XBOX 2's CPU...a variant of the Power4 CPU known as the G5. It is high performance and highly efficient, and thus much cooler than any X-86 chip which allows a multi-CPU design to be put into a much smaller form factor than a comparable multi X-86 design. The G5 has embedded in it a Vector Math unit which processes multimedia instructions much like Intel's SSE instructions. (...) Enter now the graphics chip side of things. The new ATI GPU using Intrensity's Fast14 dynamic logic process is a fantastic technological compliment to IBM's G5.
To my knowledge, there was no mention of the Xenon chip in the Xbox360 utilizing this kind of technology. In fact, there is no mention of this in any hardware forum, which I regard as proof that Xenon does not draw on ´Fast14´ technology.

Now think: Microsoft and Nintendo have identical partners for their CPU and GPU. The Revolution´s CPU (codenamed Broadway) will also be based on a G5 chip. So, the Revolution´s GPU (codenamed Hollywood) may indeed feature ´Fast14´ technology. In fact, seeing how the Revolution will be underpowered compared to its competitors, it would make perfect sense.

The critically minded should consider that there is no mention of ´Fast14´ on ATI´s website. Since the licensing agreement is obviously still valid, this would suggest that ATI wants to keep work on these chips under wraps. Again, this would make perfect sense if related to the Nintendo Revolution. For more hardware-minded people, there is a semi-understandable description of ´Fast14´ over at BDTI.

Sources: Intrinsity, Intrinsity, The Inquirer, The Inquirer, Chairman Steve
Thanks to: Product_Number_18

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Why NURBS are not the last secret

It has been suggested that my little excursion into new development techniques has left out the topic of NURBS. I am happy to comply. However, this is a bit of a difficult subject to get into. The very basic idea is this: Rather than using two-dimensional geometric units (like polygons), NURBS models are using curved lines as its basis. Unfortunately, no simple explanation I found was satisfactory to a lay audience (like myself). So let us start with a short step by step guide to NURBS modelling, courtesy of Brian J. Immel.
* Lets use the Birail 3+ tool to create our mountains. Create two curves in a semi circle shape. These will be our rail curves.
* Create a series of curves with varying heights to be the high and lows of the mountain.
* Hit the Birail 3+ tool and select all the riders in a clockwise motion, hit enter and select both the rails.
* Delete history on the NURBS surface.
* Create two more curves at the ends of the rail curves. These will be our mountain base curves.
* Select the curves that form the ends of the mountain and break them into two curves (Edit Curves > Detach Curve).
* Select the base curves and the two broken curves and hit Surface > Boundary. Repeat this step for the other end of the mountain.
* Create a layer and put the mountain in it. Name the layer Mountain and turn it to reference mode. Now our mountain is complete.
I am sure you understand how this differs significantly from polygon-based modelling. Joel has written a very basic description of what NURBS are and how they differ from polygons:
There are 3 types of geometry, Polygons, NURBS, and Subdivision Surfaces.

are 2D shapes. Mainly Polygons are color filled 3 or 4 sided, triangles or squares. Polygons are put together in different angles in XYZ to create 'meshes'. A mesh is just a group of joined polygons. (...)

NURBS (...) are curvy lines. It is like the Pen tool in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. These make nice smooth surfaces, not good for making hard corners like a box.

Subdivision Surfaces (...) are polygons with special areas that are super detailed and look like NURBS.
Though good to get us started, this was also a little brief. There is a more detailed comparison of those three techniques to be found at WebRef, but the server seems to be down, so I had to copy the article from the page´s Google cache.

The same head shown (left to right) in NURBS, subdivision (sub-D) surfaces, and polygons. Note that the NURBS model still needs a lot of rebuilding to get the mesh down to a manageable size; the sub-D surface is almost automatically clean and has dialable resolution; the polygon surface is lightweight but coarse.

Games use polygonal models exclusively. A polygon mesh, in its simplest form, is made of nothing but triangles. To add more resolution or detail to a model, you simply use smaller triangles. All 3D rendering hardware uses triangulated meshes as its ultimate data format, so this is the fastest and most efficient way to deliver geometry to a game. Although triangle meshes are very simple, working with them is not. For example, there’s nothing particularly intuitive about defining the shape of a human with a bunch of triangles. This is especially true when you have to carefully limit the total number of polygons in a mesh, as you do in a real-time 3D game. Probably the most essential skill to building 3D models in polygons is learning to make the most of the available polygon budget and to optimize the appearance of low-poly surfaces to make the most of what you’ve got.

For many years, NURBS (nonuniform rational b-splines) were considered the standard modeling format for film—and in many studios, they still are. NURBS excel in their capability to accurately define curves and surfaces containing complex compound curves. NURBS are also very intuitive for texture mapping. The down side to NURBS is that they’re a digital equivalent of rubber sheets. While you can stitch multiple sheets together to make surfaces that are too complicated to represent with a single sheet, it’s sometimes impossible to hide these stitched edges, particularly if the surface goes through dramatic deformations. Although to some extent NURBS are resolution independent—meaning you can view them from any distance and still see a smooth, unfaceted skin—in practice, NURBS surfaces are displayed using approximation, which can break down, showing holes or seams when you get too close.

Subdivision (sub-D) surfaces are the latest development in modeling methods used in games, television, and films. They work by fitting a smooth NURBS-like surface to a coarse polygonal cage. This lets you model with polygons to generate realistic, seamless surfaces that avoid many of the pitfalls of NURBS, while keeping the ability to create organic shapes typical of NURBS. Studios have been relying on sub-Ds for some time, but using them to model real-world objects is a relatively novel technique. Increasingly, modelers use sub-Ds to create characters and other models for real-time games because the sub-Ds let them produce high-res models for prerendered artwork and generating normal maps, as well as low-res polygonal models for in-engine rendering. These sub-D models can also be easily converted back to polygon models for high or low poly count use.
So NURBS have some pretty major disadvantages. There are clear advantages over the other two techniques, but they appear very specific. Apple´s Philip J. Schneider writes:
They can represent very complex shapes with remarkably little data. For instance, approximating a circle three feet across with a sequence of line segments would require tens of thousands of segments to make it look like a circle instead of a polygon. Defining the same circle with a NURB representation takes only seven control points!
These were some advantages and disadvantages. But how do developers weigh them up? Just how widespread is the use of NURBS today? The Wikipedia entry explains:
At first NURBS were only used in the proprietary CAD packages of car companies. Later they became part of standard computer graphics packages, including the OpenGL Graphics Library.

Real-time, interactive rendering of NURBS curves and surfaces were first made available on Silicon Graphics workstations in 1989. In 1993, the first interactive NURBS modeller for PCs, called NöRBS, was developed by CAS Berlin, a small startup company cooperating with the Technical University Berlin. Today most professional computer graphics applications available for desktop use offer NURBS technology, which is most often realized by integrating a NURBS engine from a specialized company.
So they are in widespread use, but not so for real-time graphics. Developers like Adger express the choice between polygons and NURBS like this:
According to most people, it's easier to model things like characters using polygon-related tools, as you don't have that pesky 'rectangluar topography' limitation that NURBS have. But later you get problems with texturing and animation.

NURBS are more suited to modeling real things, as you work with precise curves and lines instead of screwing around with polygons, and most products you see were designed using something that uses NURBS. NURBs parametric nature allows EXACT specification of curviture etc. Very handy for modeling exact things like boats, cars etc.
It should be clear from the above excerpts that NURBS are an interesting alternative to polygons in some fields, but will most likely not be used in any videogame console.

* NURBS are good for modelling curves but not so for corners and edges.
* Connecting planes using NURBS is difficult and leaves seams.
* Most developers work with polygons. Forcing them into NURBS-based modelling may not seem too attractive to developers and may not help third party support.

If anything, subdivision surfaces seem to be a promising technique that we may see more of in the future. But I am sure that the Nintendo Revolution will not force developers into non-polygon based modelling. For further reading that gets into the mathematical equations underlying NURBS modelling, I suggest this and this page.

Sources: Brian J. Immel, Joel, WebRef (Google cache), Philip J. Schneider, Wikipedia, Adger
Image sources: Brian J. Immel, WebRef (Google cache)

Race against Reggie

As a subscriber to the Nintendo newsletters I just received the following mail:
Hi Nintendo fans,

My name is Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo's Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing. I'd like to tell you about an exciting event taking place this Monday, December 19.

Do you think you have what it takes to beat me at Mario Kart DS? Prove it! Challenge me this Monday at 4:00pm Pacific Time at the Bellevue Square McDonald's in Bellevue, Washington. I'll be connecting to Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection at the McDonald's hotspot, so even if you don't live nearby I encourage you to connect at a McDonald's hotspot near you for a chance to compete against me on Monday afternoon.

If you live in the area, stop by the Bellevue Square McDonald's to meet me and get your hands on some great Nintendo giveaways. If you don't own a Nintendo DS, don't worry -- we'll have some on-hand for you to use. You'll also have a chance to win one of four Nintendo DS systems autographed by me or the Grammy nominated band Fall Out Boy.

Event Details

What: Race Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo's Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing at the Bellevue Square McDonald's or at a McDonald's hotspot near you.

When: Monday, December 19, 4:00 -- 5:30pm Pacific Time

Where: Bellevue Square McDonald's, Bellevue WA

If you can't make it to Bellevue Square, you can still take part in the fun. Connect to Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection beginning at 4:00pm Pacific Time. I'll be racing in "Worldwide" mode, so be sure to select the same Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection mode for your chance to race me. Bring your A game, because I've been practicing.

See you there!

Reggie Fils-Aime
Perhaps an unusual post for this blog, since this is not strictly concerning the Revolution. But if make your way down there you could make Reggie tell you everything he knows...

Saturday, December 17, 2005

More Revolution details emerge

First of all, apologies for posting this one two days late. I only had time to post one story Thursday night (and then was on a business trip until now) and thought it was better to write about parallax mapping. However, this story here is most interesting, too. CNN´s Chris Morris wrote this article after testing the same demo games that were presented to a hand-picked group of journalists after the infamous Tokyo Game Show keynote speech. It appears that both Nintendo president Satoru Iwata and NOA´s Reggie Fils-Aime were present at the demonstration. Here are the interesting quotes cited in the article:
"I was a developer for many years before my current role, but I've never been a very good gamer," Nintendo president Satoru Iwata told me."I've never been able to control a first-person shooter, but as soon as I used the Revolution controller, I found it very easy to control the game. So, I think that's a genre that's particularly well suited for the controller."

Reggie Fils-Aime, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Nintendo of America, said he hopes to see another type of game really take off with the Revolution.

"I hope [massively multiplayer online games] are really explored on this system," he said. "That's a genre, from the home console standpoint, that really hasn't been explored very well." (...)

"Until now, within a single household, we've had family members who play video games and family members who don't play video games - and they've been very separate," said Iwata. "Gradually, the barriers between those two have gotten stronger. ... Today, if you don't understand the controller, you're not able to enjoy video games. ... We expect [the Revolution controller] to become the standard in video game controls."

Nintendo, which has already hinted it might offer the console at a lower price, has already promised to reveal all the details at a May press conference preceding the E3 trade show (the annual gathering of the video game industry).

That doesn't mean it will retreat behind a veil of silence until that point, however.

"It's fair to say that we have a number of things that we will begin unveiling all next year, leading up to E3," said Fils-Aime.
Summing this info up, Nintendo

* considers both the FPS and MMOG genre well-suited for the Revolution
* expects to set the new industry standard with the Revolution controller
* will announce more news concerning Revolution before May 9th

I also find it interesting to note that there are ´a number of things´ that will be unveiled. This will fuel rumours that there is more than one secret feature of the console still to be revealed.

Source: CNN
Thanks to: N-Next

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Is parallax mapping the last secret?

Please welcome Nintendojo, Revo-Europe and 4 Color Rebellion to our little discussion. All of them have picked up on this debate (all without quoting me as the original source, I should mention), alongside uncountable forum posts. I would like to take this opportunity to thank every single person visiting my blog for helping to push the daily visits to a staggering count of 8.500.

Concerning the topic at hand, it has now been suggested by a number of people commenting on this story that Nintendo may in fact be planning to use yet another type of mapping called ´parallax mapping´. As ever, I have direct evidence in the form of new patents, but let´s look at the technique itself first.

Wikipedia is a good starting point again:
Parallax Mapping (also, Photonic Mapping, Offset Mapping or Virtual Displacement Mapping) is an alternative to the bump mapping and normal mapping techniques applied to textures in 3D rendering applications such as video games. To the end user, this means that textures (such as wooden floorboards) will have more apparent depth and realism with less of an influence on the speed of the game.

Parallax mapping is done by displacing the texture coordinates such that the texture occludes itself in accordance with a height map. Next-generation 3D applications may employ parallax mapping as new graphics algorithms are developed.

An easy way to understand this concept is to close one eye, take a pencil, point it at your eye, and move your head left and right. Parallax mapping takes that pixel on the far left of the pencil when it was facing you directly and stretches it accordingly to simulate your angle in comparison to the pencil.

Parallax mapping is also a way of faking displacement mapping.
To see exactly what parallax mapping does, let us look at some samples, courtesy of InfiScape.
The effects are obvious, particularly in the second example where it is combined with bump mapping. Basically, it works like this: Imagine looking at a raised point on a surface and then moving sideways. Due to perspective, the raised point will appear to move in the opposite direction. Parallax mapping can modify bump mapping to take account of such a move. This is referred to as offsetting. No extra polygons are needed. A height map is enough to calculate the offset value. It´s very simple to implement, is easy on the CPU and can thus be combined with other mapping techniques to achieve results, easily comparable to displacement mapping (though it does not actually alter the height of the pixels, I should point out).

Now, there are plenty of quotes in the patents mentioned in my earlier posts below that seem to relate to this technique. But I also came across this new one entitled ´ Method and apparatus for interleaved processing of direct and indirect texture coordinates in a graphics system´, which seemingly referrs (in some part, at least) to parallax mapping, as it often mentions an offset matrix that is applied to the textures:
In a graphics system having a memory containing texture data, a method of indirect texture referencing comprising the steps of: (a) using a set of indirect texture-coordinates to retrieve offset data from the memory; (b) multiplying the offset data by predetermined values forming elements of a texture offset matrix to produce a set of texture offset coordinates; and (c) using said set of offset texture coordinates for referencing texture data stored in the memory when mapping a predetermined texture to a rendered polygon.
Reading further, we learn about what effects this technique might have on a hardware arrangement (formatting is mine):
To provide an enhanced repertoire of texturing capabilities for a 3-D graphics system, the present invention provides a versatile texturing pipeline arrangement achieving a relatively low chip-footprint by utilizing a single texture address coordinate/data processing unit that interleaves the processing of logical direct and indirect texture coordinate data and provides a texture lookup data feedback path for "recirculating" retrieved indirect texture lookup data from a single texture retrieval unit back to the texture address coordinate/data processing unit. The interleaved coordinate processing and recirculated/feedback data arrangement of the present invention allow efficient processing of any number of logical direct and/or indirect texture mapping stages from a smaller number of hardware texture processing units while preserving a fine granularity in the overall data processing flow.
Concluding, it seems to me that this technique is the most likely to be used in the Revolution. It almost has the visual quality of displacement mapping while requiring next to no more calculations.

Sources: Wikipedia
Image source: InfiScape

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Is cube mapping the last secret?

My last post certainly kicked up some debates around the net. You will find that the story has been picked up on in a number of places, most notably Joystiq, MozLaPunk Boards, Revolution Lifestyle Boards and TVG.

Searching for more clues, I came across a number of forum entries on this topic dating back to the E3. Here is one example. The most intriguing Nintendo patent mentioned in those posts is the patent that brought ´cube mapping´ into view, here. It is entitled ´Video game play using panoramically-composited depth-mapped cube mapping´ and the abstract reads as follows:
Video game play rendered using a panoramic view of a cube map style rendering uses an associated depth map to supply three-dimensionality to the pre-rendered scene. The resulting panoramic rendering may be indistinguishable from rendering the original scene in real-time except that the background is of pre-rendered quality.
I have to admit that I have never read this patent before, at least not in great detail. Often they can be very hard to get your head round. But this one appears amazingly straightforward: pre-rendered images in real-time 3D. That is a contradiction in terms to me, but that is precisely the claim. Reading on, there are some even more dazzling comments in the background description:
We have discovered a unique way to solve this problem in the context of real-time interactive video game play. Just as Alice was able to travel into a 3D world behind her mirror in the story "Alice Through the Looking Glass", we have developed a video game play technique that allows rich pre-rendered images to create 3D worlds with depth.
There is no mistaking about that claim. And need I remind readers of the patent dealing with hidden objects and hiding objects I discussed in great length below? These two seem to fit together quite well, not to mention the apparent displacement mapping patent.

But how may this work? The more technical description is in the claims and is more of a mouthful:
A video game playing method comprising: loading a pre-determined environment-mapped image having multiple planar projected images and associated multiple depth map images; at least in part in response to real-time interactive user input, compositing at least one additional object into said mapped images, said compositing using said depth map to selectively render at least portions of said object into said mapped image to provide a composited mapped image; and panoramically rendering said composited mapped image using a desired viewing angle and frustum to provide interactive video game play.
As far as I can make out, the technique would be to composite a number of pre-rendered sequences in such a way that would make them appear to respond to a player´s real-time input.

In the glossary, Cube Mapping is described as follows:
An alternative to sphere mapping used in environment mapping, cube mapping gets a 'screenshot' looking in 6 different directions and arranges them in a rolled out cube. When applied, the object appears to reflect the environment around it. A 'cheap' alternative to raytracing reflections, cube mapping is fast enough for realtime.
This seems to tie in with the quotes from the patent above and hints at how the apparent contradiction of pre-rendered graphics in real-time 3D may be overcome.

But why else might this be true? Firstly, naming the CPU and graphics chip ´Broadway´ and ´Hollywood´ respectively could be a clue. As has been pointed many times, Broadway is synonimous with live entertainment and Hollywood with pre-produced content. Naming their chips likewise suggests a fusion of the two.

Secondly, a lack in hardware power compared to the competitors has been reported from various reliable sources, yet Nintendo claims the graphics will be on par.

Thirdly - and this has not yet been mentioned in relation to this theory I believe - Nintendo has reportedly formed a division that is concerned with pre-rendered graphics. This was mentioned in conjunction with possibly forthcoming Zelda and Metroid movies. A year ago, Variety wrote:
Nintendo consultant and former prexy Hiroshi Yamauchi has put together a plan for the company to get into film production. He will soon present the proposal to the executive committee for consideration.

According to reports in the Japanese press, plan calls for Nintendo to create a pic based on one of its own franchises for theatrical release in 2006.
What if this new division was, in fact, related to games? I would think it unlike Nintendo to venture into a completely new field altogether, moreover such a competitive one. Of course, Nintendo has enticing franchises. But - presuming that we are talking about CGI, since the division was reported as an in-house studio - Pixar, Dreamworks Animation and Blue Sky (Fox) really have got the market divided up among them. There is hardly room for another competitor, I would assume.

So, do I think this is really it? Let me put it like this: The cube mapping theory is old. So is this bit of news about a Nintendo movie division. But combine them and you get one of the best theories as to what the Revolution´s secret might be.

Source: PCVS Forum,
Thanks to: GCFan2k5

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Is displacement mapping the last secret?

Browsing for more clues concerning the Revolution´s last secret, I came across the issue of displacement mapping, an improved version of bump mapping, if you will. This cropped up briefly in relation to the Nintendo Revolution some months ago, but I believe it has not been given enough attention. But before we go into that, let´s understand what this technique is about.

1. What is displacement mapping?

Wikipedia has this to say about displacement mapping:
Hardware displacement mapping can be interpreted as a kind of vertex-texture mapping, where the values of the texture map do not alter the pixel color, but change the position of the vertex instead. Unlike bump mapping and normal mapping, displacement mapping can in this way produce a genuine rough surface.
Let´s look at the diagram accompanying that article and allow me to repeat the above in my own words.Rather than altering the colour of the pixels, the displacement map alters their height, actually raising or lowering the mesh. The obvious advantage over bumb mapping is that it actually creates a rough surface. Bump mapping only creates the illusion of one. Whereas the effect of bump mapping depends on how you look at the rendered object (the effect will be lost in a profile view, i.e. from the side), this technique works irrespective of viewing angles.

The following image is an example of what this technique can do, courtesy of ZBrush.
Displacement mapping allows you to can create elaborately detailed objects with a low polygon count. Here´s a comparison between the various mapping techniques, taken from Johannes Hirche´s 2004 Ph.D. thesis Adaptive sampling and tessellation for displacement mapping hardware, which focusses on ´efficient rendering of such displacement maps, mainly targeted at graphics hardware architectures´.I am sure you can tell that it is a significant step up from the previous techniques. However, it comes at a price. While the poly count is significantly lower, there is some strain on the CPU. Johannes Hirche writes:
Rendering displacement mapped surfaces is a process that involves a significant number of geometric and arithmetic operations. When applied to a triangle mesh, it involves prior retessellation of the base domain surface and transformation of the vertices and normals. Even on fast CPUs, it is a time consuming operation, wasting bandwidth and processing power.
This is why displacement mapping has not been widely used in real-time graphics. However, new and refined techniques allow for displacement mapping to be implemented in real-time. Again, Johannes Hirche writes:
The main focus was to explore new techniques suitable for hardware implementation in order to reduce the bandwidth strain on the system bus by moving the tessellation process onto the graphics subsystem. (...) A possibility to overcome these problems is to tessellate the individual triangles sequentially and to adaptively add triangles where necessary, until a desired level of accuracy is
reached. (...) With only minor user interaction or conservatively predefined input parameters the sampling schemes produce adaptive tessellations with very low error measures.
The above covered the immediate advantages of displacement mapping and some current problems with it, as well as how they may be overcome. Let´s see why this is relevant to Nintendo and, perhaps, the Revolution.

2. Why could displacement mapping be Nintendo related?

Firstly, there is a Nintendo patent that has caused this topic to crop up in this community before. It is entitled Method and apparatus for efficient generation of texture coordinate displacements for implementing emboss-style bump mapping in a graphics rendering system.Its abstract is a bit of a mouthful, unfortunately. Read my highlights, though:
A graphics system including a custom graphics and audio processor produces exciting 2D and 3D graphics and surround sound. The system includes a graphics and audio processor including a 3D graphics pipeline and an audio digital signal processor. Emboss style effects are created using fully pipelined hardware including two distinct dot-product computation units that perform a scaled model view matrix multiply without requiring the Normal input vector and which also compute dot-products between the Binormal and Tangent vectors and a light direction vector in parallel. The resulting texture coordinate displacements are provided to texture mapping hardware that performs a texture mapping operation providing texture combining in one pass. The disclosed pipelined arrangement efficiently provides interesting embossed style image effects such as raised and lowered patterns on surfaces.
This proves that Nintendo has not only been interested in this technique but is a patent holder. The section entitled ´cross-reference to related applications´ references 25 separate provisional patent applications that are thereby incorporated into the patent. Almost all of them date back to 2000. This would suggest that it is an important patent that has kept Nintendo busy but doesn´t date back too far to be cutting edge.

Secondly, relating back to making the process of displacement mapping more efficient and less of a strain on the CPU, one way of adaptive tessellation might actually be the last Nintendo patent I talked about in great detail, called Three-dimensional image generating apparatus, storage medium storing a three-dimensional image generating program, and three-dimensional image generating method. A number of readers pointed out that the patent had nothing to do with actually visualising graphics in 3D, but rather optimizing a 3D world to be viewed on a 2D display. Then, that patent made little sense to me. But in the context of trying to reduce the computational strain on the CPU involved in displacement mapping, this may make perfect sense.

Lastly, whether the Revolution´s graphics chip will turn out to be based on the R520 or R530, it will be Radeon technology. And its manufacturer ATI has the following advice for developers on their Designing for Radeon development support page:
Use multi-texturing effects for realistic low polygon primitives. For example, you can use emboss style bump mapping to achieve the illusion of a bumpy surface that would take a lot more polygons to approximate otherwise. Similarly, other intelligent use of texture maps can reduce the polygon count of your mesh designs.
This may not be unusual, since nVidia will undoubtedly have similar advice on their development support pages, but at least it shows that ATI is also very concerned with this technique. In fact, ATI supported this technology earlier than nVidia, it seems. While the Radeon 9500/9700 was capable of displacement mapping, the GeForce FX was only partly so. The Radeon 9700 Pro already supported adaptive tessellation. In fact, ATI has an exclusive technology called ´Truform 2.0´, which is a kind of tessellation.

Now, there have been numerous rumours about Nintendo having discovered some kind of secret development technique. This may not be secret per se, but it would make sense if Nintendo had discovered a way of implementing displacement mapping efficiently. They have a patent relating to this technology and they have a strong ally who has some expertise in this field.

It may explain why Nintendo have not yet talked about the graphics chip or shown any real game footage yet. It would also explain why the basic hardware features that have been suggested seem to be underpowered at face value, yet Nintendo maintains that their graphics will be on par. This may yet turn out to be the Revolution´s last secret.

Sources: Wikipedia, Adaptive sampling and tessellation for displacement mapping hardware by Johannes Hirche, Tweaktown, 3D Chips, HardOCP, 3D Test

Image sources: Wikipedia, ZBrush, Johannes Hirche

EDIT The patent was updated and changed patent numbers. I updated the link. The difference (as far as I can make out) is that claims 15 - 23 appear to have been cancelled. I don´t think they were before. The google cache for the patent does not exist. Does anyone have a complete copy of the original patent?

PS3 set for spring launch, after all?

Reuters has an article on the PS3 being on track for a 2006 spring launch in Japan, after all. In her article, journalist Sue Zeidler quotes ´Electronic Arts´ CEO Larry Probst as saying the PS3 may not debut until fall. An interesting quote I was not aware of.
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sony Corp. on Thursday said it remained on track to roll out its PlayStation 3 game console by spring 2006 despite industry speculation that the scheduled launch could face delays. (...)

A spokesman for Sony, the No. 1 provider of game consoles, said it was still targeting a spring 2006 launch for the PS3, which is key to maintaining its lead in the game console market against Microsoft Corp., which recently launched its competing Xbox 360 console.

Larry Probst, chief executive of the No. 1 video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc., said last week that he believed Sony's console would not be available until fall 2006.

The PS3 also is central to Sony's push of Blu-ray, its next-generation DVD technology, against a rival DVD format known as HD DVD, created by a Toshiba Corp-led group. (...)

Failure to reach a unified front has paved the way for a standards war between Blu-ray and HD DVD, reminiscent of the VHS-Betamax clash decades ago, which confused buyers and turned into an expensive loss for many companies.

Many industry insiders have expected that splashy launch of Sony's PS3 console to give Blu-ray an edge and deliver a huge base of players for Hollywood studios looking to sell compatible DVDs.

A spokeswoman for the Blu-ray consortium said the group was still on track for a spring 2006 launch, indicating other manufacturers would be rolling out Blu-ray players at that time. "When Blu-ray launches next spring, there will be both hardware and content," she said.

Rival HD DVD, which is supported by Microsoft and Toshiba, is planning to roll out hardware and software in the spring 2006. Any delay in the launch of PS3 would be seen as a plus for HD DVD.

"The PS3 was touted as being the first high volume Blu-ray player. You want to have an installed base of players if you put out the movies," said Richard Doherty, analyst with Envisioneering, an industry research firm.

Said Mark Knox, a spokesman for the HD DVD camp: "It's not going to be much of a battle until both sides are actually on the field and we have a sneaking suspicion that that won't be for quite a while."
Interesting stuff here. Sony seems very eager to reassure investors that everything is on track. So much so, perhaps, that we may suspect the opposite.

Source: Reuters
Thanks to: Joystiq

EDIT The so-called ´Father of the DVD´, Warren Lieberfarb, has made some interesting comments regarding the Blu Ray / HD-DVD format war. The former president of Warner Home Video is credited with masterminding the unified DVD format. In a recent speech at the European Video Perspectives conference he had some pretty strong words about Sony. Ars Technica writes:
Lieberfarb launched right into Blu-Ray versus HD DVD, but his comments were somewhat surprising. He stated that Hollywood had been "duped" into blindly following a battle between game consoles instead of making a decision based on their best interests. Sony, of course, is pushing Blu-Ray hard by including a BD-ROM drive in the Playstation 3, due some time next year. Microsoft, while not initially including a HD DVD drive in the XBox 360, is a strong promoter of the HD DVD standard and may in the future utilize it in their game console.

The speech then focused on Sony, who Lieberfarb accused of acting in a less than savory manner:
If you ever read "The Art of War," you will see all of Sony's moves, including taking all its enemies in the same tent and then leaving them empty-handed, are things that they have done historically. They did the same thing to Matsushita and Betamax, they did the same thing to Matsushita on compact disc, they did the same thing to Matsushita on the digital video camcorder.
Lieberfarb (...) is currently working as a consultant for Microsoft and Toshiba. Speaking frankly on the apparent tilt in favor of Blu-Ray, he admitted: "It looks like we lost, because there are six studios supporting Blu-Ray and only three supporting HD-DVD. But you know, there's always surprises."
As unlikely as it might now seem, if there were such surprises they could indeed break Sony´s back.

Source: Ars Technica
Thanks to: Gizmodo

Nintendo consoles fans

To cope with the onslaught of fan mails asking about Revolution´s graphical abilities, Nintendo has prepared a long rebuttal, seeking to console their fans. Here´s the text:
Our competitors would have you believe that the next generation of gaming will be solely defined by high definition graphics. High definition graphics look fantastic, but come at a price. To shine, high definition games must be played on high definition televisions, which aren't cheap. Games with high definition graphics are expensive to develop because they must be developed in both standard and high definition formats. Those development costs are passed on to you in the form of more expensive software. Finally, playing games with high definition graphics requires a system with loads of RAM and costly high-end graphics chips, both of which make it prohibitively expensive for most consumers.

Sharper graphics are certainly part of the next generation. We know that games for the Revolution will look brilliant whether played on a standard television or on a high definition television. However, is that all there is to next-generation gaming? We feel that sharper graphics should be combined with a new way to interface with the game itself. Our controller is a sharp departure from the current standard, to be sure, but it will provide a level of interactivity you can't get currently.

We believe in providing a single system that can play not only the previous generation's titles, but also games from a massive library built over 20 years of creating innovative and exciting games. We also believe in providing a complete wireless online experience right out of the box.

Nintendo has created a gaming system that is sleek and compact in size, powers up quickly with minimal load times, makes game development easy and fast, is easy to use, and is affordable for everyone. We are confident that gamers and non-gamers alike will support the truly next-generation experience only Nintendo can provide. Once you have a chance to play games on the Revolution, we think you'll agree!

Nintendo of America
I, for one, agree already and always have done. First of all, we should all wait until the cat is fully out of the bag and Nintendo´s last secret is revealed. To anyone who cannot wait and thinks HD will make a huge impact (on anything but the price of a system), I would urge you to play ´Kameo´ on Xbox360 for a while, then watch the game´s original Gamecube trailer. You will find that the Gamecube version actually looks surprisingly good compared with the finished game. The morphing effect is even far more sophisticated on the Cube. I cannot find a trailer source to link to at the moment. If I don´t find one, I´ll upload the trailer myself.

Source: IGN
Thanks to: Go Nintendo

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Kodak Theater

I was just a little bored and thought you might appreciate a pic of the inside of the Kodak Theater, where Nintendo will hold their pre-E3 briefing this time. The announcement is a few weeks old, but I just never looked at the venue closely. In terms of space, it´s two to three times bigger than the Grand Ballroom, where Nintendo previously held their briefings. Seating capacity in the Kodak Theater is between 3.500 and 5.000. This is the very place where the Academy Awards are dished out, better known as the Oscars ceremony. Nintendo seem to take the name of the Revolution´s graphics chip ´Hollywood´ quite seriously. Just in case any of you doubt that Nintendo will have grand news for us in May, they have sure booked a grand venue.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Lots of news but no information

While I was away, there was plenty news. However (and unfortunately), there was no new information. Here´s the round-up and some comments for the record.

Firstly, the DIEC conference bore hardly anything new. Avid readers of my blog knew this in advance, because one of the organizers posted here and said so. Also, Nintendo was not likely to reveal big news at an academic conference without any media coverage. Summing up, Miyamoto confirmed another secret concerning the Revolution. Again, no news to regular readers of this blog. Both Valve´s Robin Walker and Atari-founder Bushnell expressed admiration for Nintendo´s next-gen plans. Yet no Mario128 and no surprise announcement by Kojima-San.

Source: Kotaku
Thanks to: Various

Secondly, there was the rather ridiculous rumour about the following being a possible Rev screen, originating from Poland.

Now, the screenshot is taken from the game´s site Raid over the River. Administrative contact is one Lukasz Bando from Krakow, Poland. The site is registered to a company called I-net. Notice how there is no development company mentioned. Only the name ´Nibris´ appears in copyright notices. The story is that these people developed ´Raid over the River´ as a PC game and subsequently applied to Nintendo in order to be able to develop it on Revolution. They were turned down. They have thus not had access to any Nintendo development kits. The design document on the webpage is given as version 0.90 and is dated Monday, 25 October 2004. Why anyone would think the screenshots have anything to do with the Revolution is beyond me. It´s a PC game and no more.

Source: Revolution Report
Thanks to: Go Nintendo

Thirdly, there are a number of new Revolution pages. There is a new site on the Nintendo of Europe server. And, low and behold, IGN Revolution is finally up. About time, too.

Sources: Nintendo of Europe Revolution site, IGN Revolution
Thanks to: Savior of Hyrule

Fourthly, IGN has a some news on the Revolution´s power. Here´s the executive summary:
"To be honest, it's not much more powerful than an Xbox. It's like a souped up Xbox," a major third party source revealed to us. "But it's the controller that makes the difference and the controller is really nice." (...)

Revolution will not have the RAM capacity to store and display an abundant source of high-definition textures. Third parties have revealed to us that the console will top out with 128MBs of RAM, and possibly even less. One studio would not give us an exact figure, but did say, "The same as GameCube plus an extra 64MB of main RAM." That number is by comparison nearly triple the amount of memory in GameCube. However, it is a far cry from the 512MBs present in Xbox 360.

One studio we spoke to hinted at the possibility of accessing further Revolution RAM, but its comments were cryptic. "There is more RAM that you can use, but Nintendo is using that for general memory, like game saves and all sorts of other things. You could use it, but you can't rely on it." This comment seems to suggest that developers might be able to tap into Revolution's 512MBs of on-board Flash memory, but to our knowledge such a solution would be too slow to utilize in games. (...)

Asked if it was developing for Revolution, one major third party source said that it was well past the experimental stage and was evaluating what types of games might work on the platform. "We are looking at it quite differently. It's like another current generation platform for us. But it's such a nice controller that it opens up a lot of possibilities. It's very different and it's very precise."

Finally, quizzed about publishers' internal reaction to the device, a source responded: "People are interested, but they're still taking it all in at the moment. I'm sure [Nintendo is] going to get a fair amount of support. Probably a lot of people will initially look at existing franchises and whether or not they can kind of do customized versions for Revolution using most of the assets they've got. But whether they'll say, "Okay, let's do something completely original for it," that's the other question because it could be quite expensive to do that. Not as expensive as doing a PS3 or Xbox 360 game. But if you're a third party and you want to do cross platform, if you're doing a game on 360 you can do it on PS3 or PC using the same assets and that does make it a bit easier."
Not much here, either. I, for one, maintain that a new method of viewing games makes for (and will more than make up for) the lack of horsepower.

Also, IGN has this story concerning the launch of the Revolution. According to a developer who refused to be named, the console will launch Thanksgiving 2006 (late November). I have not directly heard otherwise but consider November too late. I prefer to trust the good people over at SPOnG, who have been told of a June launch.

Sources: IGN, IGN, SPOnG
Thanks to: Raphael

Monday, December 05, 2005

+++Back in business+++

Hello, I´m back from my trip to Mallorca. I would like to thank everyone who kept me up to date by posting news during my absence. I regularly checked your entries via my mobile and will post some comments on what happened in the last two weeks tonight.

In the meantime, I have some bad news for everyone. Jim Merrick is no longer with Nintendo of Europe. As of today, he is going back to the States to rejoin NOA. That is why I have been told that he is unable to answer my questions. I apologize to everyone who has been waiting for this exclusive.