Tuesday, 21 December 2010

In the Bleak Mid-Winter...

Winter is truly upon us in the UK, and it seemed appropriate to represent that, and the Christmas season, in some frosty visualisations of Laxton castle, in CryEngine.  It reached -20 centigrade in Laxton last week, and hardy souls ventured out for a public meeting where we discussed ideas for a new venture in public archaeology for the village and its fine castle.

But for now, the holidays are nearly upon us, enough thinking, talking and writing, time for playing and relaxing.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Laxton CryEngine Photosynth

More playing with photosynth, this time a panorama based on screen grabs from our CryEngine model. I like this, and the simplicity of creation is most impressive.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Microsoft ICE: Panoramas Revisited

Perhaps a slow starter, but while preparing some tutorial material for our current crop of Landscape Archaeology, GIS and Virtual Environments students I came across the rather wonderful, and free, Image Composition Editor from Microsoft Research.

Not only did ICE cope quickly and easily with my clumsy trial panorama data generated from the sadly defunct CityScape,  it offered the option of output to Photosynth. Just a click and a fully working photosynth panorama, generated from my screen grabs.

Most Impressed.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Authenticity and the Desire to Roam

I couldn't help but notice that the front cover of the Guide section of my Saturday Guardian was taken over, well replaced, with a front and back cover advertisement feature for Ubisoft's new offering Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. In the ad, Ubisoft are at great pains to emphasis the degree of historical authenticity in this new outing for Master Assassin Ezio, based in Renaissance Rome, with a street plan based on contemporary mapping and impressively detailed models of key historic buildings.

The game looks fantastic, and its historical leanings are interestingly discussed by the Gardian's game blogger Keith Stuart.  Much kudos goes to Ubisoft for authenticity, and for choosing a less than obvious historical setting.

I have to say that, personally, the opportunity to end the lives of numerous virtual antique Romans doesn't thrill me, but the opportunity to wander around the lushly detailed city model has me reaching for my wallet.  The sheer thrill of exploring these detailed virtual worlds never leaves me, can I be the only one who loads up multi-player mode just to stroll in solitary wonder a recreated world all my own?  Perhaps. There is something here about leaving behind the urgent, violent narrative drive of the typical FPS and subsiding into the freedom of  exploration and open ended discovery.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


Anyone trying to download the demo version of my favourite visualisation package CityScape will have discovered that it is no longer available as PixelActive have been acquired by mapping giant NAVTEQ.  Exactly what the future holds for this fine visualisation tool is uncertain, I can only hope that its new owners continue to support its development and availability.  NAVTEQ's website provides a rather opaque press release.

17 November 2010
NAVTEQ Acquires PixelActive
Acquisition Reinforces the Company’s Commitment to Leadership in 3D Mapping

Chicago, IL – November 17, 2010 – NAVTEQ, the leading global provider of maps, traffic and location data enabling navigation, location-based services and mobile advertising around the world, has acquired PixelActive.  The acquisition is an extension of NAVTEQ’s strategy to accelerate expansion from a 2D to 3D map, as well as providing further opportunity to leverage 3D technologies for all NAVTEQ products.
The acquisition of PixelActive Inc., a California-based company with 16 employees prior to close, supports NAVTEQ’s move to a 3D-based architecture.  PixelActive specializes in tools and technologies for 3D modeling of detailed road networks, buildings and terrain.   The company’s Cityscape product has been utilized by NAVTEQ in the development of product offerings such as 3D Junction Objects and 3D City Models.  The acquisition of PixelActive is aimed at expanding NAVTEQ’s ability to efficiently build products in a 3D environment.  Steve Rotenberg and Michael Kelley, the founders of PixelActive, will stay with the company and continue their roles in the R&D organization supporting these efforts.
“Future developments in navigation and other location-enabled solutions will rely heavily on 3D mapping capabilities,” said Cliff Fox, executive vice president, NAVTEQ Maps.  “Putting this critical product architecture in place will provide a foundation for the rapid creation of 3D content and keep NAVTEQ on the forefront of the industry.”
“The acquisition of PixelActive underscores NAVTEQ’s continued commitment to providing the most advanced digital maps,” explained Larry Kaplan, president and CEO, NAVTEQ.  “We are quickly moving to a world of 3D maps and NAVTEQ is taking the necessary steps to continue to provide our customers with a superior offering from which they can differentiate their products.”

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Guardian Tech Weekly podcast: Stories in games

The Guardian Tech Weekly podcast has a nice games focus this week, with discussion from the Bradford Animation Festival. Listen in below.

Second Site

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently delivering essentially the same presentation to various audiences in an attempt to drum up interest, support and funding to pursue some of the ideas and aspirations that tinkering with game-based visualisation of landscape has engendered over the past year.

So here is that very presentation, or a version of it, a kind of personal statement, part homage, part agenda and part ambition.  Now give us the money...

Monday, 25 October 2010


I'm extremely grateful to PixelActive  for providing me with a review copy of the 64-bit Pro version of my favourite visualisation tool CityScape.  I'll be experimenting with Pro, and amongst other things its export formats, over the next month or so, prior to posting a full video review.  In the meantime, it's well worth downloading the latest demo of CityScape (version 1.8.6) which includes many bug-fixes,  improvements, not least in GIS data handling and full implementation of a night-time lighting mode.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Little Gidding

This short movie shows work in progress on visualising Eliot's poem Little Gidding in CryEngine.  It gives some sense of what I am trying to achieve, a sort of meditation on landscape and time using Eliot's words and the real landscape of Cambridgeshire. Much more to do, and not sure as a concept if it works or not, but as an experimental use of game engines it has some novelty at least.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Little Gidding

history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

TS Eliot's Little Gidding is my favourite poem by my favourite poet.  Written in wartime, it conveys a timeless Englishness and a profound sense of landscape and time.  Little Gidding is of course the location of a secluded church, home to an Anglican religious community founded by Nicholas Ferrer in 1625.  Both the church, the community and the landscape inspired Eliot.  Inspired by Dan Pinchbeck's Dear Esther I have set about translating this wonderful poem into a narrated, free-form landscape-based game in CryEngine.  The landscape of Little Gidding is developed from Ordnance Survey data (some rough drafts below) and the church is to be modelled in SketchUp using crowd-sourced photography.  I'm using the version of the poem spoken by Paul Schofield for the BBC in the 1980s as the basis for the narration.  The imagery of the poem will guide development of the landscape and at present I'm considering whether to fragment the poem (Esther style) so that players encounter the verse in random fragments as they explore the landscape, or to create a guided path around the landscape, revealing verse fragments and imagery in correct order.  Eliot himself inspires the approach:

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from...
If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same

Why on earth do this?  Well partly in homage to Dear Esther, which I love, and partly to explore the game form as a method for encountering text and landscape.  The idea of uniting Eliot's text with its inspiring landscape intrigues me and I wonder, does such rich text bear mediation in the game form?  I also like the idea of subverting CryTek's violent game engine to the purpose of presenting Eliot's most meditative war poem (well poem written in time of war).  More later.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Spherical Projection

An office move has uncovered our old Elumens Vision Station, which sat running no more than the Elumens demonstration movies and a copy of EventScope for most of its life as no-one ever really got to grips with its peculiarities. A quick investigation revealed Elumens' TrueFrame software still installed.  The challenge was obvious, can CryENGINE be persuaded to generate spherically projected images for the VisionStation?  In the absence of SPI-API (Elumens are now long-defunct) which offered live conversion of Open-GL output I resorted to generating static images (four per spherical image) from a custom camera in Sandbox and stitching these together in TrueFrame. It works (as you can see) although the sky is a little flaky (possibly a misaligned camera; something to investigate).  However, the prospect of trying to produce animated output from CryENGINE, with limited Sandbox camera control and no native animated output, fills me with dread; something for a very rainy day...

Monday, 13 September 2010

Laxton Castle, CryENGINE Anaglyph 3D

Trying to short-cut the anaglyph movie workflow, this short movie of the Laxton Castle game/model uses a single video stream duplicated within Stereo Movie Maker to provide left and right video channels and with the stereo effect created simply by tweaking the registration of the two channels.  It seems to work quite well, although mis-registration is perhaps a little overdone.  Anyway, enough anaglyph for now.

Music "between blue sky and cubicle" by Japanese Seizure Robots on mp3unsigned.com. 

Friday, 10 September 2010

CryEngine Anaglyph 3D Movie

After considerable fiddling I appear to have produced an anaglyph 3D movie generated from CryENGINE.

The movie was produced by creating a camera path in Sandbox, running the camera in an out-dolly along the path at 1/8 of its full speed and using Camstudio to capture the results as an AVI (if only AVI output wasn't broken in Sandbox).  The master AVI was exported to an image sequence (5300 frames) using VirtualDub.  The frame sequences were then duplicated (one for left eye and one for right eye) and, through trial and error, a step mismatch was introduced to simulate the view from parallel camera tracks.  It worked out that a mismatch of 10 frames created a good stereo effect.  The mismatched image sequences were then combined to produce a single anaglyph AVI using Masuji Suto's excellent Stereo Movie Maker.

Does it work?  Most of my colleagues can see the 3D effect, so I guess it does.  Improvements required are a higher native resolution (I've upscaled this to 720p from the original 360) a more adventurous camera path and and some work refining the simulated parallel camera paths (requiring a higher frame-rate for the video capture to enable more subtlty in creating the mismatch).

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

CryEngine Anaglyph 3D

Anaglyph 3D in CryEngine 1 has proven surprisingly difficult to master.  The images below use the same technique as for CityScape (manual panning between captures and Takashi Sekitani's AnaMaker to generate the 3D images from two stills).  Getting the separation between images right is (obviously) crucial for producing a good stereo effect and simple trial and error is problematic.  Time to experiment with cameras in CryEngine.

Although imperfect, I do quite like these images, particularly the final one of Laxton castle looming in the virtual mist.  I wonder if access to a (simulated) third dimension increases the evocative power of the images to render landscape accessible?

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Anaglyph 3D

I've always been quite keen on the slightly blurry, unreal quality of 3D images (perhaps it was that View-Master I had as a child).  It seems a shame that CityScape and CryEngine are not able to produce native 3D output (ok I know CryEngine 3 is able to in its latest iteration, but I don't have that).  After some lateral thinking and with a little experimentation it has proven relatively easy to produce convincing stereo image output, albeit manually in a rather tedious, hit-and-miss process.  For the examples below, left and right eye images were generated by manually introducing a slight tracking motion to the camera view between captured stills.  I've combined the two images using the excellent, and free, Anaglyph Maker by Takashi Sekitani (which I should add also support output for interleave shutter glasses).

These examples (which are red-cyan anaglyph and so need the funky eye-wear) are from CityScape, I'm working on similar output from CryEngine, which since it offers better camera control should make anaglyph 3D movies a possibility too.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

And Another Thing...Cinematic Pretensions in Crysis 2

While on the subject if games as art the trailer for Crytek's much anticipated Crisis 2, engineered in the incomparable CryENGINE 3 was created in the game engine and the cinematic pretensions are obvious, with visual nods to news footage of the aftermath of 9/11 and most obviously to Matt Reeve's Cloverfield, itself leaning heavily on post 9/11 iconography, and also to Spielberg's wonderfully chilling realisation of HG Wells' the War of the Worlds.  There are some references to past games as well, the in helicopter scenes are drawn directly from the opening of Half Life Opposing Force.  Anyway, I like this trailer a lot, although the in game footage, from Crytek's website, is less exciting, focusing as it does in endless urban mayhem, somehow the beauty of the lush landscapes of FarCry and Crisis are lost.

Games as Art?

There appears to be something of a debate at present as to whether computer games are, or can be, an art form. The Guardian and the BBC have picked up on this and both point to Kellee Santiago's defence of the concept of computer games as art (below).

Dear Esther

Is a game art?  Great games are certainly cinematic in their visual scope, even if the story line and narrative development are often weak.  I would argue that experimental games such as Dan Pinchbek's Dear Esther are works of art in the same mould as experimental theatre or film.  The attitude, experience and demands on the audience are similar, by any definition this is art.  Some games even aspire to status as visual art, I'd certainly include Robert Briscoe's re-imagining of Dear Esther in this category.

Waco Resurrection
What about in the arena of cultural heritage?  My personal feeling is that games have become devalued as a medium for engaging with heritage.  They are often used merely as a visualisation tool (guilty), or as a didactic device.  So what about a use of games in cultural heritage that is a visually engaging and imaginative as Dear Esther, as inventive and morally challenging as Waco Resurrection.

Time I think to abandon the concept of the serious game and rediscover the playfulness of gaming within a creative, imaginative and challenging presentation of heritage.

Monday, 23 August 2010


I'm working on some CityScape based visualisations of famous British landmarks for a short promo movie.  Here, as a taste, a rapid model of Antony Gormley’s  Angel of the North, familiar to anyone who regularly heads north on the A1, and my all time favourite piece of  public art from an inspirational artist.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Urban Landscapes

Working on some urban landscape modelling using CityScape and SketchUp.  Here is Chester Cathedral, using the excellent SketchUp model by Peter Alwyn and road data from OpenStreetMap.

Needs more work on the street furniture and a whole raft of other buildings, I shall be trying to make some simple "cardboard cut-out" buildings using the photo texture with StreetView option in SketchUp.  But for a lunchtime of work, I quite like this.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Strange Visions

More strange visions, this time panoramas of Stonehenge assembled in CityScape (top) and CryENGINE (below).  These strange mournful visions of the stones are quite beguiling.

For comparison, here below, a real photographic panorama of the stones, courtesy of the BBC.

I'm quite taken with the idea of using game engines to create artistic renderings of landscape, extending into the impressionistic, even the surreal.  Why should we be chained to photorealism by the intense graphical renderings of modern games. More experimentation, less realism...

Friday, 6 August 2010

British Archaeology

The Vista team have a feature article on landscape visualisation using computer games in the latest edition of British Archaeology.  Head down to the newsagents and order yours now...

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Documenting Current Spaces: Robert Overweg

I came across the blog of digital artist Robert Overweg and couldn't resist adding a link to it here.  He says of himself "Robert Overweg is a photographer in the virtual world, he sees the worlds of (first and third person shooter) games as the new public spaces of contemporary society and as a direct extension of the physical world."  His haunting "photographs" are a fantastic response to the fidelity and depth of modern games.  I love this.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Playing with Perception: Time-lapse Movies

I've greatly admired the urban time-laspe movies regularly posted by Andrew Hudson-Smith on his DigitalUrban blog.  There is something about the contrasting sense of stillness in the fixed landscape features and movement (people, buildings, the sky) that reveals something more than a simple static photograph.  So what about an entirely virtual timelapse movie? A recent post on DigitalUrban 15 Days in Liberty City showed the way, so here by way of shameless imitation is my own virtual timelapse, Stonehenge: Just in Time.

Modelled in CityScape by PixelActive, with video capture using the free CamStudio.  It took a little fiddling with settings in both CityScape and CamStudio to make this work, but it seems to have done the trick.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Playing with Perception: Panoramas in CryEngine

Photographers have experimented with panoramic cameras since the Daguerreotype. Panoramas provide a fresh perspective on landscape that is both disconcerting (places and structures appear to assume different and unfamiliar relationships to each other in a panorama) and yet familiarly complete (the whole landscape is there as we might see it when we change our view by turning on the spot).  Static panoramic photographs are also strangely beautiful, and often form striking artistic impressions of land and cityscapes.

Moving panoramas have become fashionable on the web (or perhaps have come and gone in fashion) as digital photography and software such as Apple's Quicktime VR supported their creation and display.  Google Streetview is the ultimate example of this, and assumes a strange beauty when deconstructed to it constituent images.

Games-based visualisations are at first glance locked to the fixed, first-person viewpoint of the avatar, a naturalistic, view, but limited in its artistic pretensions...

Following on from playing with the camera in CryEngine to simulate the effects of changing lenses on a 35mm camera, it struck me that combining a series of static "photographs" of the landscape using appropriate software (I used the free, and rather wonderful Autostitch) would enable the creation of static panoramic images.  So here are two, of Laxton Castle.  These are 360 degree panoramas each created from approximately 30 "photographs" of the landscape from a fixed location, but each with a different view.  The results are quite pleasing and provide a different perspective on landscape, escaping from the avatar, as it were.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Playing with Perception: Camera Control in CryEngine

Photographers know well that changing lens provides access to different creative effects, from the panoramic impression of an ultra-wide angle lens to the compressed perspective of a telephoto.  CryEngine's fixed 60 degree diagonal field of view is approximately the equivalent of the human eye, roughly the same as a 40mm focal length lens on a 35mm film camera.

While the avatar is restricted to this fixed view angle, playing about in Sandbox it is possible to create multiple cameras, each with its own field-of-view of up to 180 degrees. Here, by way of example, a range of fields of view from the same viewpoint, each with the approximate 35mm film focal length equivalent.

5mm (180 degrees)

24mm (80 degrees)

40mm (60 degrees)

200mm (10 degrees)

400mm (5 degrees)

1600mm (1.7 degrees)
The artistic possibilities are immediately obvious, and choosing a narrow field of view (reaching for that telephoto lens) has the useful and realistic effect of compressing both perspective and depth of field.  Interesting potential here for cinematic style zoom and dolly combinations.  Time to experiment.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Redhill: Visual Impact on an Archaeological Landscape 3

A final version of the Redhill visualisation completed in CryEngine. Better in the end than I anticipated, but still problematic, particularly in terms of placing digital vegetation to mirror the real-world, which becomes crucial when local vegetation can radically alter mid-range views and visibility.  

8-bit CryEngine texture mask derived from a colour
air-photograph co-registered with the terrain model in ArcGIS
CryEngine terrain model, textured using
an air-photo mask, (top) without
and (below) with vegetation models.

One innovation that I am pleased with is using air-photographs to create Sandbox texture masks to rapidly add low-resolution landscape detail.  Here I've used a colour original air-photograph, co-registered with the DTM in ArcGIS, to create an 8-bit monochrome mask, with features textured on other layers such as trees, excluded.  The end results add useful detail to the CryEngine rendered terrain and makes placement of assets such as trees and hedges easier. 

I think based on these results, and the development of a fairly robust and rapid workflow from GIS to CryEngine I'd be confident to use CryEngine to take on more ambitious GIS derived visualisations, particularly where good quality asset models already exist.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Redhill: Visual Impact on an Archaeological Landscape 2

A quick update of work on the Redhill visualisation.  The model of Ratcliffe Power Station is taking shape, cooling towers in place, buildings and main chimney to add.  I'm quite pleased with the results of adding particle effects to the cooling towers, although the "smoke" needs to be white, not black, as it is in fact water vapour.

Overall the visualisation is working out better than I had anticipated, although the proof will still be comparison with ground level photographs.

Redhill: Visual Impact on an Archaeological Landscape

I've been working on a visualisation to attempt to illustrate the visual impact of a proposed development on an archaeological landscape.  Such work is usually the preserve of landscape architects working with high-end CAD and landscape design software (see for example Griffon, et al in press).  In this example I've attempted to use CryEngine as a low-cost visualisation tool to present a ground-level view of the landscape in order to assess likely visual impact.

We're looking at the hinterland of the Roman cult site at Ratcliffe on Soar, Nottinghamshire.  This is an archaeologically important landscape (protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument) which is poorly understood and substantially affected by previous developments including railway, power station and major roads.  The issue is the extent to which proposed future development will intrude on what remains of the unspoilt landscape setting of the Roman site.

Initial work was carried out in ArcGIS, building a terrain model and a series of land use masks derived from Ordnance Survey mapping.

GIS derived terrain model and land use mask for use in CryEngine
The terrain and masks were then used in CryEngine to build a basic landscape with correctly located river, woodland, fields and building placemarkers.  First results are below.  The overall visualisation now needs considerable work to add existing buildings, the development and landscape detail in key areas.  Results will be tested against ground level photographs for general reliability.

A selection of images from the initial CryEngine visualisation showing
the rivers Trent and Soar, woodland and building placemarkers.
I'm not convinced that CryEngine (or my modelling skills) are up to the task, particularly with the approximations in vertical scaling inherent in CryEngine, but it's an interesting project, and worth a try.

Griffon, S. et al in press. Virtual reality for cultural landscape visualization. Virtual Reality. 

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dan Pinchbeck: Development-led Research in Games

I don't plan on posting other people's content on this blog, but this is too good to not pass on.  Dan Pinckbeck, Games Researcher at the University of Portsmouth and leading light behind the Chinese Room, developer of Dear Esther and Korsokovia, in a fascinating video lecture lays out his philosophy on game development and research. Set aside an hour and a half and listen in.  It is worth it.

Waun Ddu: Experiments in Terrain Texturing in CryEngine

One of the things that I have found a niggling problem in CryEngine (and for that matter in every game engine I have tried) is creating natural looking texture-mapped landscapes.  CryEngine offers a number of ways to achieve this, including painting textures directly onto the landscape, automatic mask generation based on elevation and slope and use of custom texture masks.  Using automatically generated masks one is restricted to simple slope or elevation classifications, based on the in-game terrain model (with its degraded resolution).  This is rarely wholly satisfactory, but at least better than the carpet-like effect of a single texture.

While it seems that texture variations based on products derived from the terrain model might be desirable, and represent real-world landscape change, as vegetation and landcover usually do vary in such a way, I'm keen to keep the original higher resolution terrain model as a base for these.  I've experimented with a variety of derived products from a GIS-based digital terrain model, in this instance based on 0.5m resolution airborne lidar data for the Medieval motte and Roman fortlet at Waun Ddu near to Llandovery in the Brecon Beacons.

DTM derived layers, hillshade, slope severity and solar radiation
Using ArcGIS I generated slope, hillshade and solar radiation maps of the terrain model.  These were used to create texture masks for CryEgnine (for a 512 x 512 terrain model Sandbox requires texture masks of 4096x4096 pixels in windows bitmap format).

The results are interesting.  Individual DTM derived texture masks produce more subtle terrain texturing than using Sandbox's built in tools.  The solar radiation mask (based on the amount of sunlight received at each location in the terrain model) is particularly useful for showing vegetation variations, which are often based on such factors.

Terrain variation based on solar radiation map
Terrain variation based on slope severity

The masks also work well together, with a plain base texture using slope to add rocky outcrops and solar radiation to vary vegetation

Combined base, slope severity and solar radiation texture mapping

This looks like a good way of adding naturalistic variations in terrain texture based on real topographic data and I shall be experimenting more with this in future.