When in comes to innovation, in most respects Microsoft these days plays catch up. The SmartTablet is an also ran iPad, their smart phone is pale compared to the iPhone, in online they continue to bleed cash, and in software they do have massive cornerstone products like Word, but they are hardly the break out innovators… except in gaming.
In gaming, the Xbox and then the Xbox 360 have been remarkably un-Microsoft. They have been seen to be innovative and cool with smart industrial design and cutting edge innovations such as the original Xbox Kinect sensor which as WIRED recently observed extended upon its introduction in 2010 the life of the Xbox platform by “attracting an entirely new audience (8 million Kinect units were sold in its first two months).” It extended the Xbox until now.
Enter the Xbox One. This new console is innovative in the games space and extends the role of the Xbox from games console to living room hub.
To create the most advanced Xbox system yet, Microsoft created a state-of-the-art gaming operating system and fused it with an equally flexible entertainment platform, so users do not have to switch inputs to watch TV or play a game, the console becomes the viewing hub. The new Xbox One has an eight-core, x86 processor and more than 5 billion transistors to help reduce lag and load times, allowing near instant jumps between a game and a program. What does that mean to a user – the new box has about 8 times the graphics performance of the Xbox 360.
New Xbox One hardware is sleek, and wide. The console is shaped in the 16:9 aspect ratio and includes a Blu-ray player. It is molded in a long flat rectangle but most importantly it comes with a lot more processing power and a brand new Kinect.
The completely redesigned, revolutionary 1080p Kinect is more precise, more responsive and has vastly improved ‘eyes’ on your living room. Its new vision, motion and voice technology lets users use it in nearly any lighting condition, recognizes precise motion control from a slight wrist rotation, and distinguishes one’s voice even in a noisy room using advanced noise isolation.
Kinect 1: Active IR
The sensors now operate with Active IR. This means it produces a depth map and view of the room vastly independent of ambient lighting in the room. You can literally work an Xbox One in a dark room with almost any back lit or odd side illumination and the machine will read an even precise picture of the room.
“The original sensor mapped people in a room using “structured light”: It would send out infrared light, then measure deformities in the room’s surfaces to generate a 3-D depth map. However, that depth map was lo-res to the degree that clothing and couch cushions were often indistinguishable. The new model sends out a modulated beam of infrared light, then measures the time it takes for each photon to return. It’s called time-of-flight technology,” to quote WIRED’s Peter Rubin.
Kinect 2: Depth Map
The depth map that is built is now a much higher fidelity image – a much more accurate image able to easily understand the difference between cloths and sofa. But this complex and detailed depth map is only the start. It is the computer vision that is then employed on this data that will open the Xbox One to vast new uses.
Kinect 3: Skeleton Tracking
The system can target and solve up to 6 people with full skeleton tracking. While there was skeleton tracking in earlier versions, the new system can resolve to hands joints, and even fingers on 6 figures at once.
Kinect 4: Joint Rotation
From this base skeleton tracking a joint rotational model is built – this box like representation incorporates key joint rotational elements again all in real time.
Kinect 5: Physical Model
A physic’s model in now built based on a bi-ped. This model is called a muscle and force model, but it is the force model that is perhaps the most interesting. Based on inertia, relative body part velocities and some assumptions about mass – the physics engine produces a force map. This will allow programmers to gauge intent … a huge ‘air punch’ vs a mild push by a user is clearly and very easily distinguished.
Kinect 6: YOU
Now that this body has been built the Kinect and Xbox One moves conceptually to you. Your face, your mood, even your heart rate! The system has an advanced facial recognition system for both user identification and also expression mapping. It can tell if a user is looking, talking, reacting, laughing etc, and by monitoring and estimating heat and blood flow, it can take an educated guess from the IR camera as to your heartrate.
The Xbox One will launch in markets around the world later this year.
Developers are lining up to produce tools for Xbox One game development. Some examples are Geomerics and its next-gen lighting software, Enlighten, Allegorithmic’s texturing Substance engine, IKinema’s RunTime middleware and Crytek’s CryENGINE.
Englighten, from Geomerics, is a real-time global illumination solution already used on such games as Battlefield 3, Need for Speed: The Run, Eve Online, Medal of Honor: Warfighter and the upcoming Dragon Age 3, XCOM: The Bureau, and Battlefield 4.
Earlier today, company’s founder, Dr. Chris Doran, stated that Geomerics is supporting XBox One already. “The hardware is perfectly balanced for a next generation console and a huge step forward from the current generation. Real-time global illumination was a big deal for games running on the current generation of hardware, but it required developers to make some compromises. With Xbox One, those days are behind us. We can finally unleash the full power of Enlighten, and allow game developers working on Xbox One games to bring far deeper levels of dynamism and quality to game lighting. We cannot wait to see what developers produce with Enlighten.” Dr Doran is a leading research scientist with over 15 years experience. He is a regular speaker at major international conferences and is a Director of Studies for Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Geomerics claim Enlighten was “the world’s first fully real-time global illumination technology”. It certainly does provide a powerful proven solution to fully dynamic lighting on modern consoles.
Enlighten supports fully dynamic lighting; and can be used to bake out static lightmaps; and offers a range of possibilities between these extremes. The baking workflow maintains real-time authoring while saving the results into high-quality lightmaps. Direct and indirect lighting are computed separately and advanced compositing techniques can be applied when constructing the final lightmaps.
Enlighten is available as a standalone SDK or pre-integrated into the Unreal Engine, and there are plug-ins for Autodesk Maya and 3ds Max. In Maya, artists can see the results of Enlighten directly in the viewport before they export to the game engine.
Geomerics’ Enlighten will be at Siggraph 2013 in California.
Also ready for the Xbox One is Allegorithmic’s customized Substance engine. Substance is able to reduce texture sizes for faster game access and quicker downloads, and runtime generation of parametric textures.
According to Allegorithmic, Substance allows any artist to “rapidly create multiple variations of assets on the spot. Besides providing a greater variety of character and object types for players – an unspoken rule for next-gen games – this process will also allow developers to insert customization technology into the gameplay. For instance, weapons, space cruisers, team uniforms and armor can all be tailored to a user’s personal preferences.”
Substance is powerful as it manages the various layers of a modern texture, feeding say an Unity engine for high quality maps for impressive realtime results. The new workflow embraces Photoshop and allows for a powerful nodal based approach to texturing that many users are already comfortable with. It also has a great profiling tool to help determine why scenes may be running slow. This profiler displays the computation time spent by each node in your graph, making profiling and optimizations much easier. This adjustment extends to parameterize textures and tweak them while in 3ds Max, Maya, UDK, UE3 or Unity – or even at run time in a game.
Substance Designer 3.5 is the current release and it is integrated in Maya and 3ds Max as well as engines such as Unity 3D, Unreal Engine 3 and UDK. It is used by studios such as Activision, EA sports, Ubisoft and Microsoft’s own game studios.
IKinema today also announced its middleware software RunTime for motion capture and motion editing workflows will be compatible with XBox One. RunTime enables full-body animation technology for run-time control of characters during game play. Bones can be manipulated at every frame by specifying constraints and the solver produces natural and life-like motion distributed automatically over the full-body.
CEO Alexandre Pechev noted: “Receiving feedback by studios that experience firsthand the qualities that IKinema delivers is what inspires and excites us to offer next generation animation and believability in games on the next gen of consoles. IKinema reduces development time and brings movie realism and subtle detail to motion for a much improved gamer experience.”
Crytek says also that their CryENGINE 3 tech is ready to create software for the Xbox One right away. “We offered assurances over two years ago that CryENGINE 3 was ready for the next generation of consoles, and time has revealed that promise to be true,” said Carl Jones , Director of Global Business Development at Crytek. “As developers begin to create new games for Xbox One, our technology and unparalleled support will ensure CryENGINE 3 users remain at the forefront of the industry now and well into the future.”
Some of Crytek’s own recent releases include Far Cry, Crysis, Crysis Warhead, Crysis 2 and Warface.
SpeedTree for Games will also fully support Xbox One, and the product’s makers say it will be featured in several games under development for the new console.
“Our team’s early involvement with this platform has enabled us to support Xbox One game developers from the beginning,” said Chris King, CEO of SpeedTree developer Interactive Data Visualization, Inc. “As with the Xbox 360, the Xbox One development environment is a pleasure to work with. We hit the ground running from the moment we got our first dev kit.”
“We expect to announce SpeedTree’s role in several Xbox One game titles as they are revealed,” noted Mr. King. “While supporting Xbox One addresses our goal of offering the most advanced, real-time vegetation solution for the next generation of consoles, we’ll continue also supporting Xbox 360® and our other popular game platform licenses.”
SpeedTree, and its interoperability with The Foundry’s Nuke, was recently featured in a 3D Plants and Digital Environments VFX training course over at fxguide’s sister site fxphd.com.
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