The new desert of the real

The world’s most powerful virtual reality simulators are not in a million-dollar laboratory – they’re available on CD-ROM for $50 at Best Buy.

During high school, Woofer and I briefly talked about using the then hottest game titles (Doom II and Quake) to make virtual reconstructions of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.  Those shoot-em up games came packages with tools that allowed aspiring CG artists to construct their own levels that could then run on the game engines.  We figured, if we could somehow remove the guns, it would be cool to be able to browse through this art gallery via virtual reality.

Unfortunately, the discussion didn’t go further, because we felt the graphics engine was not powerful enough to render and contain the hundreds of individual textures that would make up the paintings.

But now, the technology is here. Witness this video demonstration of a Half-Life 2 map containing Franklin Lloyd Wright’s Kaufmann House and acreage in astonishing visual and audio detail (Source: Digital Urban blog):

Or the large-scale reconstruction of portions of New York, Tokyo, and Las Vegas as witnessed in Project Gotham Racing 3:

There are now dozens of PC games with powerful graphics engines, and where the game developers have thrown in for free the very same tools they used to build their fantasy environments.  Giving SDKs out to your fanbase can drastically increase your product’s lifespan; the most popular multiplayer FPS ;today is Counter-strike, a Half-Life mod created by two university students. 

Giving away the tools also means opening the doors to thousands of creative minds. Now, these SDKs are being used in ways once not thought possible.

Creating CG movies with videogames (a genre called machinima) has recently become popular, but many have now realized that the very same tools can now be used to replicate environments found in real-life. The software is cheap, the authoring toolkit is documented and robust, real-world physics and human models are pre-existing, and anyone with a PC and a copy of the same game can replay one’s creations.

Interested in modeling real-world environments? Look at what your kids are playing at home. Don’t underestimate ubiquity and simplicity.

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