Realistic like a movie

Clipped from an interview with Tim Sweeney, founder of games maker Epic:

Looking ahead, how long do you think it will be before real-time computer graphics are 100% realistic like a movie?

Tim Sweeney: There are two parts to the graphical problem. Number one, there are all those problems that are just a matter of brute force computing power: so completely realistic lighting with real-time radiosity, perfectly anti-aliased graphics, and movie-quality static scenes and motion.

We’re only about a factor of a thousand off from achieving all that in real-time without sacrifices. So we’ll certainly see that happen in our lifetimes; it’s just a result of Moore’s Law. Probably 10-15 years for that stuff, which isn’t far at all. Which is scary — we’ll be able to saturate our visual systems with realistic graphics at that point.

But there’s another problem in graphics that’s not as easily solvable. It’s anything that requires simulating human intelligence or behavior: animation, character movement, interaction with characters, and conversations with characters. They’re really cheesy in games now.

A state-of-the-art game like the latest Half-Life expansion from Valve, Gears of War, or Bungie’s stuff is extraordinarily unrealistic compared to a human actor in a human movie, just because of the really fine nuances of human behavior.

We simulate character facial animation using tens of bones and facial controls, but in the body, you have thousands. It turns out we’ve evolved to recognize those things with extraordinary detail, so we’re far short of being able to simulate that.

And unfortunately, all of that’s not just a matter of computational power, because if we had infinitely fast computers now, we still wouldn’t be able to solve that, because we just don’t have the algorithms; we don’t know how the brain works or how to simulate it.

So you’d have to create a perfectly realistic virtual human first to have perfectly realistic graphics.

Tim Sweeney: Yeah, you’d have to simulate the brain and nervous system in the computer.

And circulation and everything. But that’s probably going to be possible some day, don’t you think?

Tim Sweeney: Some day, yeah. But there’s no Moore’s Law for that stuff, and progress is very non-linear. Somebody must have a clear understanding of how a neuron works now and how it transmits to adjacent neurons, but they have no idea how a billion neurons combine together to create a brain and what parts of our brain are basically hard-coded by evolution, and which parts are based on learning, and so on.

And if you could simulate it all, how could you train it to be realistic like a human? Those problems are probably decades away from being solved. Those are things that may not occur in our lifetimes.

Just like perfect computer speech recognition: if you look at speech recognition, it’s only gotten slightly better in the past decade, just by a factor of several hundred increases in computing power.

That shows that those problems are not falling to brute force.