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Photorealism – is it really what we want?

In 2020, video games publisher Take-Two intimated that titles like its NBA 2K franchise would approach photorealism by the end of the current decade. However, the comment, made by company overlord Strauss Zelnick, seems to refer more to the differences between graphics produced ten years ago and those today – and how another leap of that magnitude would completely revolutionize gaming graphics, once again.

Artificial Intelligence

There are all sorts of magic in the gaming industry today: AR and VR might not have been the trendsetters many of us expected, especially after the surprise disaster that was Minecraft Earth, but hardware manufacturers continue to make use of cutting-edge technologies to beautify our adventures. Most recently, artificial intelligence has joined the effort to redefine graphics, more specifically, ones no longer fit for purpose.

AI is being ‘trained’ by modders to increase the resolution of older video games. This process works much the same as in many other applications of AI: by letting it analyze existing data sets and draw its own conclusions.

The AI predictive tool Beth.bet shines a light on this process by describing sets of data ‘filters’ that it uses to come up with insights on racing results in the UK. The system produces comprehensive, real-time updates that take into consideration numerous factors from weather conditions to the pedigree of the horse and other historical performances/anomalies that may influence upcoming races. This tool gives a glimpse of the wider application that AI can provide users, whether it’s news, betting, or graphical updates.

Suspension of Disbelief

Photorealism is a different kettle of fish altogether, though. Like with mobile phones, there’s evidence that graphics processing has reached a plateau where incremental upgrades are the norm. That’s not to say that photorealism isn’t possible, but it certainly requires a computational ability of around 40 teraflops. To put that figure into context, the PlayStation 5 has 10.3 teraflops while a 2080 Ti graphics card has 13.45, one more than the Xbox Series X.

The question that never gets asked regarding photorealism is whether we actually want or need it. The website Gaming Bolt notes that photorealism is just as good at ruining our suspension of disbelief as broken animations. Put another way, our brains understand that the oversized troops in Gears of War are representative of humans but not real. Once this concept gets flipped, we can no longer see the fiction for the reality.

Facial Expressions

Of course, there’s more to making a character seem human than drawing their arms and legs correctly. Realistic emotions, facial expressions, idle movements, and speech patterns are all, arguably, more important than what a character looks like, as they help create an emotional connection between the player and the polygons on the screen. With photorealism, these concepts have to be perfect or the illusion is, once again, ruined.

As mentioned, there may be far more value in renovating older games than pushing the industry to photorealism – though, the two outcomes may be inseparable. Researchers at Intel have managed to drastically improve the already fantastic graphics of Grand Theft Auto V by giving an AI various photographs to use in place of the game’s textures. This kind of upscaling has been used in titles as disparate as Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid.

Zelnick’s comments may seem exciting but there are still plenty of milestones still to cross in the pursuit of perfect graphics.

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