Sunday, 13 November 2011

Making Something Different

Enjoyed speaking the the CBA East Midlands group in Market Overton yesterday.  Part of a programme packed with interesting and varied stuff, including one again Dave Walker on the excellent Nottingham Caves Survey

Talking about using airborne lidar in landscape archaeology I think I spent too long dwelling on the relatively mundane choices of data visualization techniques and how they enhance our ability to identify and interpret archaeological information in lidar elevation models.  But beyond traditional visualization is the enticing world of game-based immersive visualization of those same data, a better way to engage with the density and complexity of high-volume survey data.  I was pleased that suggesting this approach went down well with a general non academic audience who (I'm sue I will be forgiven) were on the whole somewhat older than the  usual conference audience.  To me this seems hopeful proof that the concept of community digital heritage has some currency and that computer-based visualization is neither too esoteric nor too divorced from the common currency of community archaeology to find a place. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Different Visions

Back to Laxton tonight, wearing a by now slightly unfamilar hat, to talk to the Laxton History Group about the past excavation and survey work in the village and castle.

I can't resist including one of the CryEngine visualizations of the castle survey in the presentation, and have settled for that produced in CE2:

It strikes me how different the same basic data looks in CryEngine 1:

Nothing deep here, but it strikes me as how CE1 has something of a cartoonish, fantastical feel about it.  Now we may deride that as lack of photo-realism, something that undermines the authenticity of the visualization, and if we did we might have a point.  But there's also something attractive about this, rather like naive art, the studied lack of realism invites a different kind of engagement and reject criticism for not looking real enough.  This might just be my liking for the speed and simplicity of CE1 speaking, but if game based rendering of landscape is about more than simply realism (and I believe it is) then maybe naivety and a simple pallet have something to offer.

Friday, 16 September 2011


Two exciting pieces of research affecting Stonehenge have been pointed out to me and are too good not to pass on.  The English Heritage funded 3D Stonehenge model has used high resolution terrestrial laser scanning to produced an unparalleled, accurate three-dimensional model of the stones.

Meanwhile, at Bournemouth University the team responsible for one of the recent campaigns of fieldwork at Stonehenge have completed the Google Under the Earth: Seeing-beneath-Stonehenge project. Funded by the Google Research Program. Birmingham Postgraduate Lawrence Shaw has worked on this project and blogs about it here.

Great work, and nice visualization in both cases.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Exploring Visibility and Atmospheric Occlusion in CryEngine

The role of visual appreciation of landscape has taken a leading role in the archaeology of landscape, encouraged both by theoretical approaches and the utility of GIS softwares for automatic analysis of the visual characteristics of large landscapes.  Various writers have critiqued GIS studies of visibility and proposed enhancements to and refinements of visibility studies (eg. Llobera 1996 and 2000; Ogburn 2006).  In essence arguments for the refinement of visibilities studies focus on the need to appreciate the impact of range, view direction and target size on visibility. Additionally, a number of authors have pointed out the shortcomings of both theoretical and practical approaches to visibility studies, in particular the fact that many studies ignore or misrepresent the potential impact of vegetation and past vegetation patterns on landscape and visibility. 

I have been experimenting with using CryEngine to model different degrees of visual occlusion of landscape, based on atmospheric fog and rain.  Sandbox conveniently allows varying vegetation scenarios for the same landscape to be stored as layers that may be turned on and off to explore the visual impact of changes in vegetation.  Sandbox's environment controls allow alteration of the character, density and occlusion distance of atmospheric fog and addition the impact of rain on visibility may be simulated through particle effects.  The graphics here illustrate CryEngine simulations of the effect of increasingly dense atmospheric fog (with view distance decreasing from 200m to 500m) and the addition of rain on visibility of Stonehenge as viewed from The Cursus, a distance of just over 2km, and can be compared with a traditional GIS-derived two-dimensional viewshed diagram from the same location.

I think this approach has some potential for exploring changing visibility in landscapes where views and indivisibility are considered significant.  I'll be exploring different vegetation patterns in a similar light in the near future.

Llobera, M. 2001. Building past landscape perception with GIS: understanding topographic prominence. Journal of Archaeological Science 28, 1005-14.

Ogburn, D.E. 2006. Assessing the level of visibility of cultural objects in past landscapes. Journal of Archaeological Science 33, 405-13.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011


One of the nice things to come out of Technological Advances in Landscape and Heritage Management Recording has been the chance to collaborate with colleagues in Ireland on some experimental visualization.  

I'm very grateful to the Discovery Programme for supplying some of their very high resolution Fli-Map airborne lidar (c.2m ground resolution) to play about with, including attempting a visualization of the iconic Hill of Tara in CryENGINE.

Tara is an interesting landscape to work with.  The earthworks are well defined and the lidar data quite startling in its clarity, there are also numerous crowd-sourced ground level photographs to work from.  Working in CE1 was a little disappointing, although layering textures from derivatives of the lidar terrain data (slope mapping, solar insolation modelling, etc) shows promise.  Far better at the moment is CE2, with its much improved lighting and vegetation.  Below is a rough render of the initial model, with more to follow in due course. 

Getting the vegetation right here is key and requires considerably more work before even beginning to think about adding arcitectural detail. Great to have such fantastic data to work with.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Weather Game

How do we understand complex data and comprehend uncertainty?  That's just the question that the UK Met Office are trying to solve with an attractive on-line casual game: The Weather Game, playable on their website for the next month.

The game present players with an imaginary (actually rather trite, but no matter) scenario and a variety of visualizations of weather predictions from which future actions need to be determined.  How well you do in deciding your future action is obviously, to some extent, a reflection on how clearly data is presented to you and how uncertainty in that data is mediated, so that it is possible to take into account in decision making.  Interesting resonances here for interrogation of climate change predictions. I wonder what a similar approach to comprehension of the UK Climate Impacts Programme UKCP09 models of future climate change based on different emission scenarios, might reveal, particularly in the ability of policy makers to comprehend and adapt.  Well, this is a long way from games based visualization of landscape and heritage, but it is visualization, and after all what we are about here is trying to better understand landscape scale data. Recommendation: take a break from Crysis2, play the Met Office game, explore different visualizations and make a contribution to a useful piece of research at the same time.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Scottish Ten

More from Technological Advances in Landscape and Heritage Management Recording.  The Scottish Ten is another fine example of a terrestrial laser scanning project of epic and imaginative scale producing beautifully visualized results.  In its own words "A groundbreaking international 3D scanning project to digitally document Scotland’s five World Heritage Sites and five international ones".  Work has employed a variety of scanning techniques to document sites as diverse as St Kilda, Neolithic Orkney and Mount Rushmore.

I'm particularly taken by the effectiveness of their translation of laser scanning from point cloud to photo-realistic models (viz the movie above) and crave more information on their methodology.  The impressive pre-rendered visualizations are a great example of what laser scanning is capable of - but I'd love to see the same data ported to a game-engine for real-time interactive exploration.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The City Beneath

As promised something on Dave Walker's Nottingham Cave Survey that so impressed me at Technological Advances in Landscape and Heritage Management Recording in Dublin last Friday.  Dave and his team have been working on producing a comprehensive digital record of Nottingham's unique and relatively little known systems of man-made rock cut caves, the earliest survivors of which date to the Middle Ages, but for which there are far earlier accounts.

Using a variety of terrestrial laser scanning kit the team have worked on the "cave a day" principle to produce a stunning primary record.  While there is little in time and resources to make too much of these data what Dave has done is produce some lovely, quite ethereal flythroughs using Pointools View Pro.  Nottingham is my home city, and I've wandered through a few of the caves over the years; these visualizations perfectly capture the sense of strangeness that descent from sunlit city street to subterranean space creates - I'm always reminded of something faintly Lovecraftian "the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries" but that's just me...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Technological Advances in Landscape and Heritage Management Recording

Here, for the record, my presentation given at Technological Advances in Landscape and Heritage Management Recording in Dublin on Friday.  An excellent, useful and enjoyable day with some very interesting presentations, particularly focused on high resolution airborne and terrestrial lidar.  I was really taken by the work of Dr Dave Walker on the Nottingham caves (good enough to deserve its own post, so more later) and the Scottish Ten, mysterious name, but great work, again deserving its own post. Since I managed to give the wrong version of my presentation, anyone interested in what I had to say will get a fuller picture from the below...  

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Recounting the Landscape: Laxton Castle CryENGINE 2

Part of the aim of "Lasers, Landscapes and Muddy Boots" is to demonstrate the way in which game engines can place us as archaeologists physically within the landscape of our surveyed monuments, albeit virtually.  As a demonstration I've produced this short walkthrough of our survey of Laxton castle, based on field collected GPS data.

Produced using CryTek's CryENGINE 2, it lacks the ludic elements of earlier CryENGINE 1 models of the same site, but has a greater degree of visual fidelity - it looks more like the real thing.  Just the thing to get across the point that standing inside our survey data and rewalking the same fields, getting digital mud on our boots, may bring new insight. In the words of Tilley "To understand a landscape truly it must be felt, but to convey some of this feeling to others it has to be talked about, recounted, or written and depicted."

Friday, 5 August 2011

Narrative and Choice: The Stanley Parable

Really enjoying the Half-life 2 mod The Stanley Parable.  A great example of what is achievable using FP game engines when creativity breaks free of the predisposition to run and shoot things, this strange fractured narrative with its dominant narrator and meta narrator brings to mind Aldiss' Report on Probability A or the fracturing of narrative form and convention of some of John Fowles's novels (the ending of The Magus for example, when the a narrator suddenly appears to discuss choices and outcomes).

This is clever, intriguing stuff, done with flair but minimal fuss and with starkly simple visuals that point the player back to the experience of the unfolding narrative and the dominant voices of the narrators, confusing, commenting and instigating choice, while all the time undermining and questioning our freedom to really choose.  Great stuff!

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Games as Heterotopias

Reading Michel Foucault's "Of Other Spaces" (Diacritics, Spring 1986) a lecture originally given in March 1967 and startlingly prescient of digital technologies and their potential for virtual spaces.

Foucault argues the concept of the heterotopia, a sort of anti utopia, a space simultaneously mythic and real defined by five principles.  So, heterotopias are capable of juxtaposing in a single space several real spaces that are in themselves incompatible (a theatrical stage, for example), are linked to slices in time - heterochronies, where traditional concepts of time break down, and a spaces detached from the mundane world, in some senses private and requiring of formal entry and exit.

These ideas (and I know I am far from original in thinking this) seem to perfectly frame the concept of a free-form game of landscape and memory, in which a virtual representation of the real world (detached, theatrical and demanding formal entry and exit) unites incongruent spaces and times in a single virtual space. Imagine exploring a virtual landscape in which fragments of time and past space litter the present world and you have the general idea. Such fractured worlds are in fact common ground in many games, recall Gordon Freeman's jolting journey through other spaces in the latter part of the original Half-life, and are the meat and drink of works such as Dear Esther and Korsakovia. In fact in many ways all games that strive to represent the real world digitally are hetrotopias of a sort (Assassin's Creed's time and place jumping narrative is another example).  

I like this concept of the breakdown of formal space and time into something more mysterious and demanding greater engagement to comprehend, as a structure it has much to ponder on in designing mythic-real game spaces for exploring heritage.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Lasers, Landscape and Muddy Boots

I'm in the process of writing a presentation on the potential applications for immersive visualisation of airborne lidar for the upcoming symposium on Technological Advances in Landscape and Heritage Management Recording to be held at University College Dublin on 12th August.

Among a plethora of papers on technical aspects of airborne and terrestrial laser scanning I'm trying to get across a point about the deficiencies of conventional visualization of high density landscape data.  Methods of survey have developed dramatically in the recent past with the advent of new digital survey techniques, global positioning airborne and terrestrial laser scanning and the volume of data collected to record monuments and landscapes may now be vast  Growth in data quality and volume has been accompanied by a reluctant theoretical debate, largely about method and meaning in the practice of survey.  The visualisation of survey results has tended to remain rooted in traditional approaches, albeit facilitated by new digital media.  The ability of modern digital survey to engage with others areas of archaeological debate, for example discussions of sense of place, meaning and interpretation in landscape, as embodied by for example the phenomenological approach to landscape has largely been ignored as it is poorly addressed using conventional static visualisation techniques. 

So game software offers the potential to engage with data not just through a cognitive analytical process, but experientially, by inhabiting a virtual rendition of the surveyed landscape.  And once rendered this hyperreal landscape can be populated with all manner of data, from surveyed facets of monument and landscaape morphology, to the vestiges of historical documentation and the impressions of viewers. What comes to mind is the concept of thirdspace, coined by urban geographer Edward Soja - 

“everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history.”

But that might be going a little too far for the present...

Thursday, 26 May 2011


Very excited by the arrival of our new Educational License for the CryENGINE 3 SDK from CryTek.

Some work to do in setting up a license server for our research community here at Birmingham, but personally I'm looking forward to exploring the incredible potential of this software for landscape rendering, and the technical potential of outputting standalone content for web deployment and stereoscopic 3D - particularly on our Mechdyne  PowerWall.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Tale of Tales

Recently I have been enjoying two wonderfully evocative games produced by the duo Auriea Harvey and Michaƫl Samyn, aka Tale of Tales.

The Graveyard is a simple visual meditation on approaching death, you guide an old woman in her short walk across a graveyard to a seat by the chapel, where in a scripted scene, she reflects on life, death and those she has seen buried.


This rather lovely little game, bravely rendered in monochrome, is both thought provoking and visually delightful. It pays replaying simply to enjoy the visual richness of the landscape.

Rather different, but equally attractive, is The Endless Forest.  In this unworldly game, set in a forest familiar in visual style to players of The Path, players adopt the avatar of a deer, and wander through an endless richly detailed forest, encountering avatars of other internet players.

The open ended game play is absorbing, you are drawn into a world in which you move freely in all directions, encountering landscape, architecture, artifacts and other players with little guidance as to how to act.  Game play is an experience of learning to live the game world, guided by simple image icons that change dynamically to access appropriate actions.  I am still learning to enjoy and explore the world of the Forest, and the game system rewards long-term play with a developing avatar and new action options.

So, it strikes me that these simple, open games, embody much of what I would like to see in the adoption of game technology for engaging with heritage.  Imagine freedom from the scripted path of traditional games, a freedom to explore and encounter.  Perhaps even a stripping of the strict rules of linear time, so that one encounters echoes of the entire past in a rendering of the present landscape.  I see such games as released from the requirements of strict historical accuracy, more a fusion of history, drama and art in which a combination of game play, visual richness and evocative content draw players to explore place, time and space and in so doing create their own meanings.

Friday, 29 April 2011

CryENGINE 3 in Universities

Thanks to Lawrence Shaw for pointing out CryTek's recent press announcement celebrating the great academic uptake of CryEngine.

CryENGINE 3 - Great News

Great news for all CryENGINE fans (of which I count myself one) as CryTek announce the imminent release of a free Crysis 2 editor and CryENGINE 3 SDK.  The announcement was made by CryTek CEO Cevat Yerlion the CryMODForum.

Full text of this exciting development here and below

Be Free... Be Creative... Be the Developer

An open letter to the Crytek Modding Community.

Hello to all of you.
Here at Crytek we value our community, and we love what you do with our engine. In recent times our focus has been heavily on the development of Crysis 2, however our modding community has been, and remains, very important to us.

So, I wanted to tell you about our plans for supporting you in the future with some really exciting news, which I want to share with you now. Modding with the most powerful game engine is coming back!
We want to see what you guys can do with CryENGINE 3 and we hope we'll be as amazed with the things you create as we have been over the past few years. This time around, we're going to do things in a different way - offering you the right tools to achieve your vision.

First of all, we will be launching an Editor for Crysis 2 early in summer. This will allow you to build new maps, items and more custom content for Crysis 2. For teams looking for even more creative freedom, we have another option: The free CRYENGINE SDK.
Be Free

In August 2011 we will be launching a free CryENGINE SDK. If you want to use it for fun, like all our previous MOD SDKs it will be completely free of charge, to anyone who wants to play with it! You just register, download the SDK with a personalized license key and you're good to go!
Be Creative

We'll be giving you access to the latest, greatest version of CryENGINE 3 - the same engine we use internally, the same engine we give to our licensees, the same engine that powers Crysis 2.

This will be a complete version of our engine, including C++ code access, our content exporters (including our LiveCreate real-time pipeline), shader code, game sample code from Crysis 2, script samples, new improved Flowgraph and a whole host of great asset examples, which will allow teams to build complete games from scratch for PC.
Be The Developer

With all this power in your hands - we know you're going to do some amazing things with the engine, so we're working out how best to support you.

We'll also be sharing our documentation with you, which is written by the developers of the engine, and we'll be giving you a new and improved We'll update the Free CryENGINE SDK regularly, to make sure you have access to all the advances we make to CryENGINE 3.

If you want to use it to make a game to launch commercially, we'd like to help you with that. If you want to take your product down a traditional commercial route, we will offer an innovative low cost licensing model if you want to release your game digitally.

If you're looking to use CryENGINE for non-gaming purposes, we'll have a per-seat business model for the engine - please enquire at for further details.

So to go over the details again:
Our next release will be the Crysis 2 Editor, this is for those of you who want to create content for Crysis 2. In August 2011, we will launch our Free CryENGINE SDK for all of you who want to create totally new content on CryENGINE 3. If you just want to make fun, free projects, you can do that free of charge. If you want to try and commercialise your game, we'll be here to help you with that.

I truly value the contribution you have all made to our company and I hope we can continue giving back to you in future.

All the best,

Cevat Yerli

CEO & President of Crytek

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Igloo: Games and Installation Art

This week I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the work of artists Ruth Gibson & Bruno Martelli a.k.a. igloo who, in their own words create installations, video works, online projects & performances which have been shown in galleries and festivals worldwide.

Their installation VISITOR is currently at the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham. Inspired by experiences of the Canadian Rockies, VISITOR fuses art and games, with part of the installation Vermilion Lake comprising a full-scale replica of a trappers cabin housing an interactive virtual environment navigated by visitors by the physical means of a rowing boat.

This is a fascinating and hugely creative use of game technology to engage with real and imagined landscape in a visually and physically involving way.  In the words of Richard Ducker Curator of the Fieldgate Gallery "The worlds they create are total simulacrums: there is no separation between the invented & the real, the site & the represented, the local & the imagined...Their work engages the particular of the site while undermining its place, the original & point of departure become one in a conceptual unravelling."

Friday, 18 March 2011

Engaging with the Virtual World

I'm pleased to say that our session at VIA2011 has been accepted by the conference organizers and promises some interesting discussion and debate on the role of games in archaeological visualization.

The six papers are listed below, with full details of the session and the conference on the VIA website.

01Understanding virtual architecture as story-objects in a network of gameplay by Dan PinchbeckView more information about this paper...
02Computer Games and Visualization: A Game Designers Perspective by Carl JonesView more information about this paper...
03Authenticity and play in strategy gaming by Andrew GardnerView more information about this paper...
04Computer games in archaeology: potential and danger by Eleonora GandolfiView more information about this paper...
05I Remember When... Exploring landscape, narrative and time using computer games by Keith ChallisView more information about this paper...

06Reliving the Past: 3D models and Virtual Reality as supporting tools for Archaeology and the Reconstruction of Cultural Heritage: The case study of the Roman Villa of Freiria by Helena Rua and Pedro Alvito

Friday, 21 January 2011


Thanks to Dan Jackson for pointing me towards this movie of a rather nice mod to  Mount and Blade Warband called Brytenwalda.  Not, I admit, a game I am familiar with, and perhaps no great loss there, but the graphics are fun, even if the concept of Dark Ages and the misplaced iconography of Stonehenge a little confused.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Engaging with the Virtual World? Approaches to Using Computer Games to Represent Heritage

Just had a session proposal for VIA 2011 accepted.  The session, organised jointly with Mat Smith at Kingston University aims to explore the use of computer games to engage with archaeological landscapes and in particular approaches to narrative and place. Session abstract below.  All comers welcome, offers of papers (with short abstracts emailed to me) welcome.

Engaging with the Virtual World?
Approaches to Using Computer Games to Represent Heritage

Contemporary first person computer games represent the height of technical sophistication in simulation and visualisation using consumer grade computing hardware.  Game technology has been adopted for archaeological visualisation, at least in part in recognition of the technical prowess and possibilities of game engines, and highly popular recent game titles (for example the Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed) have distinctive historical settings and represent historic landscapes with startling fidelity and deliberate accuracy.

This session proposes to extend the consideration of the co-option of game technology for archaeological visualisation a stage further, by challenging the narrative framework within which archaeological reconstruction occurs and suggesting that the adoption of the ludic elements of games, and sophistication and genre breaking views of some recent games, particularly from avant guard games houses, may have much to offer archaeological visualisation.  Papers are solicited considering all aspects of the adoption of game technology for visualisation including approaches to the narrative of place in game worlds and the appropriateness of play in representing the past.