Realistic Human CGI is no April Fools

Realistic Human CGI is no April Fools

Summary: For real: Activision's computer-generated character animation is strikingly realistic, generated in real-time, and coming soon to a computer near you.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

I tend not to pay a lot of attention to the gaming community. It's not that I'm disinterested in computer and video games, it's just that it's a huge field outside of my normal technology interests, and while I play some games, particularly on my tablets, I don't put in the kind of personal time and technology investment at the level that I could legitimately ever call myself a "gamer". 

While I own a lot more technology than the average person, I don't have a powerful PC gaming rig, nor do I even own a gaming console.

Much of my entertainment comes from reading, and watching movies and TV, not to mention my passion for cooking and wine, among other things. I have a really busy lifestyle, between working in the technology sector and writing about the tech industry. So I tend to choose diversions that have the least technology involved as possible. 

This is not to say I don't have a fine appreciation for what game developers as well as what computer modellers do. In fact, you could say that computer generated imagery is something of a family business.

My brother, Brandon, is a CGI modeler that has worked extensively in the entertainment and film industry, so I know exactly what kind of technology is used to create the sophisticated creatures, effects and scenery.

It's a labor-intensive process, requiring some very expensive software and hardware, not to mention rendering infrastructure that requires a level of parallelization rivalling the levels of supercomputers.

Heck, if you're WETA, which produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy and recently The Hobbit, you really do have supercomputers in order to produce these films.

Still, as impressive as these movies and animations are, computer-generated imagery for the most part, as least as it is applied in game design and filmmaking, still looks computer-generated.

It's also easy for us to accept something like a Dragon or an Orc or some alien creature as an "actor" in a film, because it's not something we have a natural frame of reference with. 

Realistic depictions of human beings, however, have always been the holy grail of CGI. To date, nobody has really been able to create CGI that fools human beings into believing that they are looking at another real human being and not something that is rendered and appears completely artificial.

Part of this has to do with tradeoffs in sheer computer horsepower and the time it takes to render and model the "actor".

You could model a very realistic human being in CGI, using hundreds of thousands of sampled textures and millions of colors, model the precise lighting and level of complexity in sheer mind-boggingly high polygon count that makes us look "real", but we'd be talking about a truly massive level of effort and use of computer resources that would be needed to pull this off. 

Historically, it just hasn't been worth trying to do in a feature-length film, because the resources, be it rendering time or the human labor needed to achieve this would be astronomically expensive.

And at best, what you would have is a frame-by-frame rendered movie. You could never generate these kinds of images in real-time, in something like a computer game or a simulation. And it would take many years to produce. It just wasn't feasible.

Until now.

At last week's 2013 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, game developer Activision showed a preview of the kind of real-time generated human character technology we might find avaliable on commodity computer hardware within the next five years. 

And when I mean commodity, I'm talking about cheap, entry-level PCs and game consoles. Perhaps even the next generation of tablets and smartphones. Not the elite "gamer" PCs and CGI production workstations that cost thousands of dollars.

At GDC Activision showed demos like this using two year old laptops with very entry-level GPU technology. 

Activision's demo is eerie. Creepy even. Yes, you can still tell that this is computer-generated, and there are more than enough flaws in the rendering that the suspension of disbelief goes away. There's no facial hair, and it's only a single disembodied head, and detail is lost in certain areas, particularly around the mouth.

But this is much more sophisticated, and far more realistic than anything that we have seen in a computer game before.

The implications are far-reaching, and concern me greatly.

Imagine that within ten years time, the ability to visualize highly-realistic, computer-generated actors in real-time can be accomplished not only by using commodity consumer tablet and gaming hardware, but can also be produced by anyone that can hire a modest-sized team of computer animators and can afford a million dollars (or less) worth of server rendering and workstation budget.

TV and movie studios could produce films that bring beloved and long-dead actors back from the grave. 

But this also means that entities willing to do harm to someone's personal reputation, or even engage in acts of CGI terrorism could, with enough biometric data and texture sampling (in the form of high-resolution photographs and enough audio to produce convincing "voice fonts") could make well-known public figures appear to do and say things that they did not actually do, in videos posted on the Internet and on live televison.

Once the model of the actor was created, the time to produce videos that could respond to current events would be fairly swift.

Think about what North Korea or Iran could do with this. Or China. Or what certain interest groups in our own country could do. Or corporations. Or single individuals with private agendas.

Are we on the verge of being able to produce highly-realistic depictions of human beings using real-time computer-generated imagery? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topic: Emerging Tech


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Bring back Clippy

    Jason, please ask Microsoft to bring back Clippy but make it a realistic talking human head instead.

    Instant productivity increase.
  • what's with the teeth?

    this is great...but why can't these programmers make a realistic mouth? everything else looks real, then the darn thing opens it's mouth and it looks so FAKE.
    • It's not just the teeth

      This video did not look photo-realistic. It screamed computer-rendered as soon as he started moving and talking.

      The programmers generating this stuff still haven't realized that you see the tongue and inside of the cheeks moving in a person's mouth when they are speaking, even when it's fairly dark in there. You see the orifice at the rear of the mouth flexing and contracting, as well. The inside of the mouth or any open orifice is never pure black in the real world. Rendered teeth always look like they're made out of the whitest possible shiny ceramic. Not only are teeth imperfect in shape and alignment, their surfaces are not that shiny. They're actually very textured and colored a mixture of yellows, purples, and grays. Lastly, and most importantly, facial gestures are almost never symmetrical. When somebody raises their eyebrows, the two brows create two completely different shapes. When they move their eyes, they don't both move precisely the same amount. At the extremes, it's hard to tell if they're looking at the same thing. When people smile, the left corner and right corner of the mouth are always distinctly different from one another. Lips are rarely symmetrical either.

      Putting a bump mapped texture, a few moles, and some stubble on a face doesn't make it look any more real when it's moving wrong. I've yet to see ANY animated computer-rendered human who didn't immediately look computer-rendered to me, no matter how big the budget was or how long they took on the code.
      • You got to be kidding!

        What the hell are you talking about? We realize we don't live in the future,right? This is an amazing feat of CGI considering were the industry was just a few years ago. It's a matter of comparative perspective not an ideal in the abstract.

        You're probably one of these guys that always expect perfection and if it's not, it's crap. I'm sure you would say the same thing regarding current electric car tech.

        You're nothing but a back seat tech driver whiner.
        • have you seen better?

          its the best CGI i've ever seen rendered in real time on consumer grade hardware. Worth noting though, first saw it without any sound and it seemed more impressive when he was just making faces rather than when I knew him to be speaking.

          carmack has stopped saying "games aren't realistic enough" for people to make the mistakes and go GTA in real life due to being confused (thats another can of worms, please keep it sep)

          I'll agree that the mouth wasn't rendered which didn't help. Also worth noting, character is largely hairless which might have been to enable real time rendering (or they felt the skin was much more impressive than what they had worked out for hair)
          • BillDem is right

            Especially the mouth and teeth, but even the artifacts around the eyes wouldn't fool many people. AND you'd be surprised what can be do at 30fps. This looks like motion capture on top of a digital scan.

            Laequis: Look here for some awesome work if you are impressed with this
  • Running Man, anyone?

    This will allow all kinds of mischief, innocent or otherwise. Remember The Running Man? Imagine hackers, news shows, or even the government being able to produce "fake reality" on an even larger scale than they do already.
    • Not just Running Man

      Does anyone else remember Looker? It was about a company digitizing "perfect" models, then killing them so they could use their images and not have to pay anyone. I think it was a plastic surgeon who got suspicious when all these girls came to him with very precise measurements for their facial "corrections" to fit the company's idea of perfect, which was based on closely watching people's eye movements while they watched videos.
  • Part of the computing power and time needed creating movie characters

    is also because the computer generated characters are being integrated into live action scenes involving actual humans, ect. All that has to be taken into account to make things "believable" to the eye.

    Though it's no Max Headroom, it sure is impressive for a disembodied head
    William Farrel
  • this is indeed very creepy

    but as we have learned not to trust realististic looking photos because anything can be altered with photoshop, we will learn not to trust videos either.
  • Better Acting and casting

    Perhaps now with this tech we can get better quality acting and casting of virtual characters. The best part is we won't be subjected to these actors inane and ignorant opinions foisted on us only because they are famous.
  • Soon the dead will come back to life.

    THe imagination boggles at all the potentials.
  • he looks just like Loughner

    even though the facial muscles move, the emotions he tries to convey seem made-up. This gives a scary feeling that the person is not quite sane.
  • Reminds me of a Star Trek Deep Space 9 episode

    where a former spy fakes a video supposedly showing a Romulan senator engaging in treason. He realizes the Romulans would check out the crystal in detail and notice flaws and realize it was a fake. So he hides it on the ship and then rigs the ship to explode. They find the crystal in the wreckage and assume the "flaws" are from the explosion, not faking the video, so they accept the video as real.
    • yep i'm a trek fanboy

      you bungled that synopsis bro. Not so much that I was like wtf? but def need to rewatch that episode. netflix baby!
  • Biggest failure - the iris.

    Peoples irises change constantly - variations in lighting, emotion, general movement even.

    The heads iris never changes - even when the lighting is dark.
    • Good point. I also thought the "emotional nuances"

      via the eyes just didn't seem to match the context of the argument so it didn't feel right. It "works" much better with no sound from that standpoint.
      William Farrel
  • Queue the pornographers...

    The first adopters and exploiters of any new and innovative technology are likely to be the producers of porn. That's how it has always been, no reason to suspect otherwise now!
    • It has not always been that way

      BD has been the scourge of porn, as has HD.
    • ...

      oh dear... think of what they will make lara croft do....