Tech Update (December 2017)

Andy Cormack gives us the heads up on what’s on the horizon in hardware and technology, giving you the lowdown on the next big thing.  For the last Tech Update of 2017, Andy looks at the weird phenomenon of the Uncanny Valley when something designed to replicate a human being appears to totally resemble a human, yet creates disturbing feelings such as eeriness and revulsion in the observers and wonders if we will ever get around it. Also, bus maps on Google, and a new super high-end graphics card capable of machine learning. 

Will The Uncanny Valley Ever Be Conquered?

Neill Blomkamp, the director and visionary who created films such as District 9 and Chappie, seems to think so, and he’s not alone. For many it’s a foregone conclusion that some time, perhaps even in the not too distant future, the Uncanny Valley will stop becoming an issue for high end graphics.

“There’s two components to that, the first one is that software itself, as well as the computational power of whatever rig you’re running it on, is going to get better and better. I think it’s inevitable [that] a line is crossed where the Uncanny Valley just goes away.”

“At the same time that is happening, you are also dealing with the changing population, which is just becoming more and more OK with the idea of real-time graphics – even if they are uncanny valley. You know better than anyone, there are millions and millions of gamers playing PUBG or Battlefield or whatever it may be, and they accept how that looks. It doesn’t mess with their enjoyment of playing the game, or watching the cut scenes. I think that the population is more accepting of it, as well, as time goes on. Those two things working together equals lots of people being ok with real-time.”

Blomkamp is putting the emphasis on the real-time aspect of this rendering because of his recent work on a series of shorts for the game engine Unity, a series designed to demonstrate the capabilities of the engine.

Originally a standalone short called ADAM posted to Youtube that won a Webby Award, the scope grew and the team behind the Unity engine teamed up with Blomkamp to add two more chapters and create a mini series focusing on different aspects of the world that had been created for the original.

Of course, Blomkamp is no newcomer to attempting to attain photorealism and bridge the Uncanny Valley gap in his previous works, all works with impressively believable composites. In fact almost all modern cinema contains some amount of CG work, even ones you wouldn’t think so while watching, be it compositing scenes with more interesting backgrounds, or compositing the actors into those scenes, not to mention the more complex variety of adding rendered creations into live action material almost seamlessly.

A good example of this can be seen in a lot of the popular TV series Game of Thrones, each episode of that show has an almost innumerable amount of shots that are composited or include CG in a seamless manner, such that a majority of the audience just accept it, and the brain’s acceptance of what they are seeing is the key to a successful crossing of that valley.

Joe Bauer, a VFX supervisor for the show, explains why. “The best compliment we can receive in visual effects is to be invisible. If anything behaves in a strange way it doesn’t only blow the shot, it blows the scene. We can’t cause the audience to blink at any point so our work has to really, really be great, and that’s grown as the things we need to depict have gotten bigger. Every skirmish has gotten bigger, then it was large armies, then larger armies, then larger armies, our dragons have quintupled or more in size…”

There are certainly already areas of film and TV which already stand at the peak of believability, a shining beacon to a future of CG so true to life that you’ll have to do more than squint and turn your head a bit sideways to ask yourself “is this real?”, but an area still teetering on the edge is that of believable humans and other forms of life.

The most recent examples of this are Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Blade Runner 2049, both films at the top of their game from a CG standpoint, with incredible graphics and compositing in both, and arguably the ones that have come the closest in recent years to achieving suspension of disbelief with their CG characters.

WARNING: Slight spoilers for both films going forward, so if you haven’t seen either of these films yet then this is your time to stop reading.

In Rogue One, two characters are represented in full CG for the purposes of when the film is set in the chronology of the spanning Star Wars saga as the actors that originally played those parts had either passed away or were too old to convincingly reprise their roles. The rendered versions of these characters are incredibly detailed and faithfully reproduced based on the original actors but audiences immediately picked up on the CG nature of them and came out of the film remembering those parts vividly for their ability to pull them out of the experience.

A very good recent example is the comparison between Grand Moff Tarkin’s real performance by Peter Cushing in the original 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope and the Rogue One CG rendition captured with real conviction by Guy Henry, better known as the taciturn Henrik Hansen in Holby City.

As you may have observed and felt, the human eye and brain can immediately pick up on things, even subconsciously, that dismiss the CG version as fake. Perhaps because you know that Peter Cushing is no more, and that the late great Carrie Fisher who was also rendered and CG’d, you know that the images that you are seeing are indeed fake due to both things you do notice and things you perhaps don’t. Humans, it turns out, are incredibly good at spotting fake humans because we spend most of our lives observing them.

Contrast that with the more recent rendition of Rachel from Blade Runner 2049, a character that again was cast and portrayed originally a great deal of time ago, hitting the big screen back in 1982. Again, the actress who played her at the time has long since aged to the point that there would be no convincing way to reprise her role directly in the sequel. In Blade Runner 2049 however, the CG reproduction was somehow far more convincing, albeit still obvious if you look closely enough at the performance, and I would attribute this to an incredible amount of hard work and dedication by the team, combined with some very specific lighting to achieve the effect more convincingly than in Rogue One.

In the film, the actress playing the double for Rachel was used extensively as lighting reference in order to achieve accurate lighting, tones, and shadows for the CG version, creating a near perfect match.

So is the Uncanny Valley something that we will overcome? Especially in as little as the next few years, some seem convinced that this will be the case.

Google Maps Soon To Include Bus Routes That Tell You Which Stop To Get Off At

Have you ever been travelling on a bus route you’ve never used before to a place you’re unfamiliar with? Constantly trying to check road names and landmarks to help you figure out where you should be getting off? You’re certainly not alone, and Google are attempting to help using their Maps app.

The development team at Google responsible for the Maps app are in the process of finalising and then rolling out an update to address this very thing, providing you with a more comprehensive overview of the route you are travelling on and notifying you when you’re approaching your destination on both buses and trains.

You’ll now receive a more detailed listing for the public transport route and its stops, similar to that of the car or walking navigation details already in place. Though certainly not the first app to have this kind of functionality, integration of this into Maps will mean less switching between navigation apps while en route somewhere, for a more hassle free experience.

Furthermore, these route details will appear even on the lock screen, helping to keep you up to date with current information as readily as possible, with the ability to scroll through the steps directly.

There’s not an official date from Google regarding this new feature as of yet, just a nebulous ‘soon’ with the feature set to appear on the Android version of the app, though the feature will most likely roll out to iOS some time in the not too distant future.

Nvidia Release New $3000 Graphics Card Aimed At “Deep Learning”

Nvidia, creators of one of the most popular brands of gaming graphics hardware on the market today, have just released a new card designed and aimed heavily at what is known in AI circles as Deep Learning; it’s certainly not the first card in this line from Nvidia, with the architecture it’s based on being in its Volta series of hardware since May. However this is the first to be a kind of ‘go-between’, tying together their gaming and professional computing based lines into one single piece of hardware.

The Titan V, as it’s been dubbed, not only possesses the compute power of its professional grade counterparts, but also functions as a proper graphics card for the purposes of gaming and other real-time graphics uses. Coming with three DisplayPort outputs and one HDMI output, the Titan V is ready for most typical gaming setups.

Though there hasn’t been any official word from Nvidia regarding its gaming performance, various websites have already gotten their hands on the hardware and made their own benchmarks to test out the rather pricey bit of kit.

As the hardware is still barely available as of the time of writing, benchmarks are hard to find. Some Reddit users have got their hands on some though, and have put the hardware through its paces. Of course, we can’t confirm the exact validity of these results, but there’s a good chance they’re at least somewhat accurate.

Below is the card put through its paces on popular graphical performance benchmarking software Unigine, showing that the Titan V outperforms the current flagship dedicated gaming offering from Nvidia, the GTX 1080 Ti, by quite a margin.

Image courtesy of Guru3D.com who compiled the benchmark result into their table of reference cards.

The article on Guru 3D continues on to compile a list of benchmark results from a Reddit user, not so much claiming validity of the results, as just compiling them into a more readable form as an overview of the user’s findings (you can read the full article here).

Tech Update – November 2017

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