Epic's Tim Sweeney: Lifelike Graphics Will Happen During Our Lifetimes

by Matt Bertz on Feb 09, 2012 at 02:09 PM

One of the gaming industry's preeminent minds took the stage for a speech at the D.I.C.E. summit today, and his talking points didn't disappoint technophiles.

A self-acknowledged tech geek who feels more comfortable speaking to programmers about topics like the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem than he does distilling his theories for general audiences, Sweeney is the brilliant mind behind the nearly ubiquitous Unreal Engine, which powers many current generation games. Like id Software's John Carmack, his influence is so great that hardware developers bring him into the conversation early on to benefit from his insight. For his "Technology and Gaming in the Next 20 Years" presentation, he casually walked us through some of his computations that lay out an aggressive pattern of technological growth for the gaming industry.

He started by talking about the limitations of human physiology, saying our eyes are the equivalent to a 30-megapixel camera and framerate becomes imperceptible to us beyond 72 frames per second. The highest resolution we need is 8000x4000 pixels, which is slightly better than the 7630x4320-pixel prototype television Sharp showed off at CES this year. The technology isn't here yet, but it's coming soon.

Computer graphics are the art of approximating that reality, and Sweeney thinks we'll see lifelike representations of everything from lighting, subsurface scattering, skin, smoke, and fog in the near future.

“Within our lifetimes, we will be able to push out enough computational power to simulate reality,” he said.

To reach the level where computers are capable of producing truly lifelike approximations, Sweeney estimates that we need roughly 2,000 times the computational power of today's best graphics hardware. This level of processing power still doesn't account for human thought, movement, speech, personality, or intent, so there is still a lot of room to progress with artificial intelligence on top of the idealized graphics. Sweeney thinks we'll need a few more console generations to reach this level of fidelity.

He thinks the future is even more promising when you consider the potential of emerging technologies like gesture control, voice commands, persistent networks, cloud computing, augmented reality, and the sale of virtual goods. As we start to tap the potential of these technologies, Sweeney believes the platforms will start to consolidate.

“Only question is whether a game runs in your living room or in a server,” he said. “It’s not going to change everything but it will make things more convenient for gamers.... Our industry's brightest days are yet to come."

Sweeney will be inducted into the AIAS Hall of Fame tonight at the 15th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards hosted by Jay Mohr.