As computer hardware gets ever faster, and as 3D software gets ever more powerful, new opportunities always present themselves. Crucially, as the ‘average’ home computer reaches a certain stage (where they generally have a 3D accelerated graphics card and a broadband connection) using 3D to explore and interpret the past – interactively – is ever more possible.
Rendering vs Realtime
Most images of the past generated by 3D software packages are pre-rendered. That is, they are static images or movies that you cannot interact with. The reason that you can’t wander about these virtual pasts on your computer, like you can in a game, is that more often than not, it takes a very long time for a computer to ‘render’ the image from the 3D geometry that it is constructed from. Many of the images that I have produced often take hours (even days) to render, having taken days to research and create.
That is set to change, however. Computer games have been exhibiting more and more sophisticated “engines” that produce the in-game graphics. They use the graphics processing unit (GPU) present on modern video cards to the maximum extent. The latest video cards are almost computers in their own right, dedicated to producing ever more photo-real results.
A game called Crysis recently came to my attention. It is (as usual) a “first person shooter” where you roam around a fictitious landscape killing things and performing missions. They don’t usually grab my attention, but this one did for one reason: the graphics engine (CryEngine2) and level editor. The graphics in this game are nothing short of astonishing. What the game does in realtime, 30 times a second or more, would take some software that I use several hours to render. This video shows what can be achieved in realtime, on a computer with the latest video card:
What is even better, is that you can use the same engine not just to play the game, but to create new content (or levels) for it.
Maybe soon, we will be able to use these tools to interpret the past. This kind of technology, if affordable, would certainly speed up the process of creating landscapes and scenes, ultimately allowing archaeologists to experiment with their interpretations in 3D without being detrimental to budgets in terms of money and time. It could allow still images to be generated very quickly, as well as animations, and free-form interactive worlds to wander about in and explore.
Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait too long.