Friday, March 25, 2016

It's Virtual Reality Christmas Eve!

It's been a long wait for people interested in getting their hands on the consumer VR hardware Oculus' founder Palmer Luckey first dreamt up on the MTBS3D forums four years or so ago. It's been an even longer wait for people [myself included] who were expecting it to take off in the mid-90s when The Lawnmower Man had us all thinking the shape of work to come was suspended leather couches and skin-tight glowing bodysuits. Thankfully that is not to be the case.

But, it's now finally time for this:

And the below gif singlehandedly sums up the mood of myself and the VR community:

Looks like I'll be waiting till late April/mid May for the delivery of my CV1 darnit. I was a day late to the kickstarter for the DK1. Had I been a little snappier I'd be hopefully receiving my free CV1 this Monday, as shipping to the original kickstarter backers has commenced!

Bring it on.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Unity 5 realtime global illumination in VR

Well, after a pretty great response to the Sunshine demo, [big thanks to Oculus for sharing it on the front page] I'm ready to start looking at the next project.

I'm a big fan of American artist James Turrell, and I wanted to make an experience reminiscent of his work where you can just experience the effect of light. That's kind of simplistic I know, but his colours, spaces and projections look terrific to me and I'd love to go and see a show of his work, or even better, go see his Roden Crater when it's finished.

Not Unity, but James Turrell's 'Blue Planet Sky'.
So, the first thing to try with Unity 5 is the realtime global illumination system built in from Geomerics, called Enlighten. I wanted to illuminate a scene completely with only one light. Here's a clip showing my current demo:

I recorded this clip in VR mode and looked around using the Oculus Rift, so my apologies to those looking for a standard single eye view. Regardless, you can see the effect of the sunlight bouncing around during the daytime phase and then the same effects during the moonlight phase.

Effects like this used to only be possible in an offline rendering situation with all the indirect bounce-light calculations sometimes taking hours. With a little bit of up front pre-computation [in this case about 45" on my computer] this lighting can play back at realtime speeds.

This image, from a mental ray render in Maya in 2003 took about an hour to render from memory?
So it's a really exciting time to be making interactive 3D content - realtime GI is a major stepping stone towards realistic lighting that can immerse the viewer.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Sunshine Observation Deck now on Oculus Share

My demo was approved and made publicly available on Oculus Share today, and it made the front page - Woohoo! It's an honour to be selected alongside others such as the Apollo11 Experience in a long list of new additions and updates.

Oculus host the versions you can download now, so I probably won't kill the free dropbox bandwidth I'm currently using. But you'll need an Oculus account to download these so I'll keep these links live for anyone who doesn't have one:


Win7/8: Note: This demo runs great in win7, I've not tested in win8 however.

Thanks to Oculus for providing a curated hosting solution.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sunshine Observation Deck VR demo released!

You can now download the demo and try it for yourself [Requires Oculus Rift DK-2]. Here's a youtube clip to give you a taste:

There's more info here on the Oculus Dev Forum post. And here's a download link to the builds if you want to jump in:


Win7/8: Note: This demo runs great in win7, I've not tested in win8 however.

Time to start thinking about the next project. This time a Unity5 VR test of the real time global illumination capabilities of Enlighten from Geomerics.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Transparency and deferred rendering are a bad combo, plus a mysterious lady appears?

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you. Hope you had some time off and a relaxing break. I certainly did while playing a lot of BlazeRush with my kids. BlazeRush has a solid frame rate, excellent effects, great feeling dynamics and it's easy to play. The devs just added some of the best VR support I've seen in a commercial title too. It's great value for money on Steam, go get it.

This post will cover my discoveries about the difference between deferred rendering and forward rendering in Unity and how alpha transparencies forced me to learn a thing or two, plus some screen shots of where the sunshine observation deck is at. Things are nearing the time when I'll release it to the community as I'm itching to start another idea I had. It's a bit technical, but there's nice pictures at the end.

In the last post I talked about physically-based rendering and cubic environment maps, shortly after which I needed to create the transparent, alpha-mapped smoked-glass window you can see in the frame grabs from the movie below:

Smoked-glass sliding door screen-left.
More smoked-glass, this time from inside the science lab.
As a new Unity user, [n00b], I had previously switched on deferred-rendering in the graphics pipe [cause it sounded great], only paying scant attention to the documentation mentioning that deferred rendering supports a multitude of dynamic lights. I thought 'Oh yeah, dynamic lighting, that's something I'm going to want for sure', and completely ignored the part that mentions transparent objects must be rendered in forward rendering mode.

I happily proceeded to create the sliding door geo, apply UnityPro's refractive shader and watch my frame rate plunge down to sub 60fps as I approach the glass.

Oh noes!!! The horror! I resigned myself to the fact that I probably couldn't afford this cool looking effect with my GPU [nVidia GTX 680MX] and swapped the Pro refraction shader for a plain alpha-mapped transparency shader. So sad. However, I remembered that for achieving a sense of presence, Oculus recommend a high frame rate over visual fidelity.

So money. I must have it at all costs.
But when I previewed the alpha-mapped transparency shader in the Rift the frame rate still took a nosedive when I approached the glass. So the transparency itself was the cause of the problem and not the refraction shader? But why should transparency cause such a hit to the GPU?

There are two main problems and the answer lies in the order in which the objects I'm asking Unity to draw are rendered. I risk stuffing both feet in my mouth trying to explain this as I do not have OpenGL coding experience nor a computer science background, but here goes a quick summary. And here's a link to a great page describing both forward and deferred rendering modes if you'd like more info.

To draw the current frame, the GPU usually attempts to draw the objects in the scene from the furthest object visible all the way up towards the front, or what is nearest to the camera. This is good because objects are sort of stacked logically and things appear in the correct order depth-wise, but this is also bad because things that might be hidden by other things are drawn unnecessarily, wasting GPU resources. This is the first problem. This unnecessary drawing is called 'overdraw' and in fact Unity has a viewport mode dedicated to showing you what's hiding behind other things:

Unity's Overdraw viewport mode - How to know what is transparent and what is not though?
Smart video game design attempts to minimise this by culling or removing objects that are hidden behind others so the GPU never needs to draw them. I'm not being that efficient yet however and just relying on not having too much stuff to draw. We're in space after all. This doesn't really impact the base rendering speed *too* much, but it's part of the overall problem.

The second part of the problem is that I'd asked Unity to draw in deferred rendering mode, where the geometry is processed in multiple passes to separate the jobs of drawing, lighting, texturing the scenes objects. In that lighting pass - and this is the main advantage of deferred rendering - many many lights can contribute to the scene's illumination cheaply as there's no texturing or other stuff done at that time, hence you can have lots of dynamic lights. But during the remaining texturing and compositing phase of the draw the transparent portions of the foreground objects must be considered when calculating the pixel sample values of the objects behind. And it's this continuous checking and sampling that destroy any speed gains made. The glass and the way it's transparency contributes to the appearance of the objects behind has to be considered at every step. In fact the closer you get to the glass, or the more of your view covered by it, the slower the GPU goes.

Forward rendering however, performs this object drawing from the back up to the front also, but it draws, lights and textures the scenes objects as it goes. Each object is rendered in it's entirety and then the next closest etc etc on and on until right in the front at the last millisecond the transparent glass is drawn over the top and BLAM that frame is done. It's this brute force approach that makes transparent foreground drawing feasible.

Sure enough, switching Unity to forward rendering instantly restored my frame rate, and allowed me to use the refractive shader which looks cool. It's a little over the top as glass on a spaceship this modern probably has no imperfections at all through which the background would be distorted but I think it adds to the ambience. And since my scene is mostly static, I was able to bake any shadow casting lights and extra stuff afforded by deferred rendering into the light-mapping. That's my problem solved!

Phew. If you're still here, congrats. Hope that wasn't too painful. And if I got this wrong, don't hesitate to tell me in the comments. Now for some screen shots of where the observation deck is at.

EDIT: Here's a great read/rant from a graphics programmer about the different rendering styles as well as a discussion on why it's hard to make mirrored surfaces in games:

Please bear in mind the following images lack the optical effects present in the Rift's view which assist dramatically in creating the missing atmosphere. But the double imaging of the Rift screen make it tough to see what's there, so this is how you can see it for now:

I found a free, high-quality model of a seated woman online to share the viewing couch.
Viewing deck exposure controls are present. 
Rear corridor hatch and controls.
Rear wall normal-mapped panelling.
Science lab doorway.
Ergonomic chair. On a spaceship. Of *course* it's ergonomic. Who'd send an un-ergonomic chair into space!?
Monitor bank, and [how exciting] a server rack. Blinking lights.
And at this point my goal is to return to detailing and texturing the magnetic flares around the sun and then release the demo to the community. The aim of this demo is to recreate a location from the film as well as offer a relaxing Oculus demo where you can get a tan in VR. I'll probably be spending a chunk of the Wellington winter months in there attempting to offset seasonal affective disorder.

Till next time!


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Physically Based Rendering, cubemap reflections, parallax correction, light-mapping and more!

So, I feel I've tumbled down some sort of rabbit hole in the last few weeks. What started as an innocent attempt to model a room from movie has transmogrified into a headrush of new learning about the current state of the art in real-time rendering, and thus a fair amount of dissatisfaction with my current abilities. Only to be expected really!

The excellent Marmoset Toolbag in action
Last post I felt like all I needed was some realistic floor reflection cubemaps. Google got me off the starting line with some christmas ornament reflection maps that sorta worked:

Which, when used as a cubic reflection map, produced this sort of look on my floor tiles:
yeah... ish
I discovered that Unity can make these rather easily internally too. By choosing a transform internally near where the viewer would be situated I can render 6 x 90° camera projections that form a box with the images that everything inside that box that was shiny would see. This is great. Now my normal-mapped floor can reflect the sun! Now my own cubic reflection map looks more like this:

Which produces reflections like these:
The actual sun reflecting on the actual floor! I'm done! ... NOT.
But... well... this is all well and good if the floor is perfectly reflective. Which it's not. It should be covered in micro-abrasions that scatter the incoming light rays and making the reflections blurry. How can I create this in Unity? There's no 'roughness' slider in the default shaders and my metal floor is a long way from looking anything like the quality camera-lens renders above.
This began my investigation into quality reflection map creation which led me to Marmoset Skyshop for Unity. Marmoset make a fantastic set of shaders for Unity 4.5 and up that aim to mimic the energy-conserving properties of a surface and also provide a really good introduction to physically based rendering. I highly recommend reading their Toolbag2 Learning pages if you don't know where to start. Turns out, realtime rendering and offline rendering have a much larger overlap than I assumed with next-gen game engines requiring the understanding of BRDF functions and forcing artists to re-consider albedo [diffuse] and specular maps entirely differently than the past 20 years.

A little learning goes a long way in improving material appearance.
It seems each time I want to improve the appearance of my scene with Unity's rendering capabilities, I end up trawling the Unity Asset Store looking for 3rd party solutions. And there are a few real gems. However, with the imminent release of Unity5 and it's reflection probes, realtime GI, and new super shaders, is it worth spending any money to gain these abilities now? Perhaps not.

So my choices at this point are begin transitioning my project to Unity5's beta [which I have access to], or pay money to buy solutions that give me these effects now in 4.5 but may or may not be supported or required going forward...

For now I chose to apply what I've learnt to with what I have. PBR theory has really helped me get better results with the current shader controls - for example the leather texture below has baked-in cracks and grain, breaking up the reflections and giving the couch top appearance a much better feel:

Complete with hand sculpted bum impressions.
I'll make the jump to a proper PBR version of this scene as Unity5's tech releases. In the meantime I've started light-mapping the room's illumination to get better ambient occlusion and mood. The viewing couch is modelled and in place and some new shaders created.

A fun model to make with curved metals and a low-ish polycount.
Where O where art thine couch reflections in the floor???
With my current reflection mapping approach, things don't really line up properly as the virtual surfaces that the reflections are mapped to are actually situated an infinite distance away. Thus you can see the sun reflection on the floor screen-left is actually present where the wall reflections should be appearing. This requires a technique known as parallax-correction - something that Marmoset has an excellent solution for, and the fantastic Sebastien Lagarde documents on his blog here. I'm not sure I'll implement a solution for that as there are other things I'd like to move onto in this project.

Optically in the Rift view I've got a new starfield in the background [I realise exposure-wise that stars would likely be well under the sun's brightness and thus invisible, but you know, VR!], some sun shafts creating beams of light, some dust motes floating in the room for a little atmosphere [after playing Alien:Isolation in VR I couldn't help it - the modelling and lighting in that game is a masterpiece!] and a few other tweaks in store.

It's a place you can go and just sit and look at the sun.
Still hitting 75fps no problem at all in OSX and Win7 so I'm not really near the limits of my GeForce 680MX yet. Speaking of which, the current OVR 4.3.1 runtime and Unity integration produce rock-solid head-tracking in Windows and it's kinda stunning. OSX is still a little swimmy. Getting close to producing a youtube clip [maybe 60fps?] for people to try out too. 

I'll wrap this up now, but next post I want to detail what I've found out about timewarping, prediction alpha transparency, forward rendering Vs. deferred rendering and the Unity Pro Profiler, and of course some scene updates. 

Looking for where this began? Click here to visit the beginning.

So long for now!