Carl Sagan once said that to make an apple pie from scratch you must first create the universe. The same principle applies when it comes to making computer graphics truly look like the real world: you need to start with the basic physics of how light travels through air and objects, bounces, and diffracts.
Doing that–using a technique called ray tracing–makes for the ultimate in realistic computer graphics and gaming. Unfortunately it is so computationally intensive to do in real time that examples so far are limited to research labs.
That may be about to change. At the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco last night Intel researchers based in Germany showed me a non-descript laptop running a ray traced version of first person shooter Wolfenstein. By shunting the physics calculations necessary into the cloud–onto servers connected to over a network–they have made it possible for even puny machines to offer truly real graphics. When the user interacts with the game their commands are sent back to the cloud which calculates how its simulated universe has to change and sends the resulting frames back.
The screenshot above gives an idea of how the look of a ray traced scene–in particular the play of light and shadow–looks more real. It looks really real when you stroll around in the game and shadows shift accordingly. A nice example was provided when the game character crouched next to a classic car polished to a high shine. The movement of other characters was reflected and distorted in the paintwork as it would in real life, complete with reflections of reflections where two surfaces met. This could make for much more complex gaming–sneaking up on other players would be much harder. This screenshot
Startups like OnLive have already shown that running a game in the cloud is possible. With powerful enough servers it should be possible to do that with a ray traced game too, Daniel Pohl of Intel told me, allowing even gamers with less than the most powerful hardware to experience truly real graphics. You can read and see more at Pohl’s webpage on the project, and this blog post.