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April 7, 2013

Video Game Advance

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Fluid mechanics – the Navier-Stokes equation

SimOps Studios Code3D

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Real-time simulation courtesy of Zoran Popovic
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The virtual worlds of video games, animated movies, and training simulations are taking another step towards reality with eye-popping, real-time modeling of natural elements like fire and smoke. This ScienCentral News video shows the latest development.

Playing with Fire

The simulation pictured to the right behaves like actual smoke, and it does it in real time. The video shows it and other simulations being played with on a regular computer. They were created by University of Washington computer scientists Zoran Popovic and Adrien Treuille, who developed a new formula for simulating fluids like fire and smoke. Firefighting simulation training, as seen in SimOps Studios’ software Code3D, is useful for studying scenarios like a subway or chemical plant fire that would be difficult to stage in the real world. But currently, fire and smoke in these simulations and video games do not respond faithfully to changes in air currents, temperature, and pressure.

Still from Code3D firefighting simulation
image: SimOps Studios

“When you play video games, what you’ll see is a world which essentially consists of a bunch of blocks. And the most they can do is sort of bump into one another,” says Treuille. "We're trying to bring all of the really beautiful and sort of plastic effects in the world around us to video games, such as things bending, billowing in the wind, cloth, fluids, real flames, real smoke, all of those things which are not composed of blocks and yet are really beautiful, integral parts of the world around us.”

Model Reduction

Usually, fluid simulations need to track millions of constantly-changing parameters to represent fluid flow. Popovic and Treuille started from there, but then through a process called "model reduction,” eliminated everything that wasn’t needed to simulate the fluid for a particular application. “So instead of having millions of variables which we have to compute,” says Popovic, “We now have maybe 50 or 70 variables. This drastically reduces the computation time and allows us to actually have these interactive real-time simulations.” That’s something that an off-the-shelf computer or game console can handle.

Something for Everybody

Naturally, their research has gotten a lot of attention from game companies. The one thing they say companies are all asking for: flamethrowers! Sadly lacking in the universe of first-person shooter games, realistic flamethrowers are something this new technique could make possible.

Adrien Treuille (left) and Zoran Popovic

There are also more noble applications of the technology, such as rapid prototyping in aeronautics. Normally an engineer would create, say, a new wing design, wait a few days for the computations to run, then look at the results. Using a reduced model, they could observe the characteristics of the airflow right away, and improve their design on the spot, accelerating the whole design process.

Popovic works to create immersive environments that rival the effects we see in films and even in real life, and to have all of the elements be interactive. “In fact, in our lab our mission is to actually make that possible. In five years we should more or less have interactive environments that are edging towards being completely indistinguishable from real world experiences.”

Treuille agrees, "I really think that there'll come a time when you ask your kid are you watching a movie or are you playing a video game, because it will be impossible to tell the difference."

Publications: Association for Computing Machinery Transactions on Graphics vol. 25 num. 3 (SIGGRAPH 2006).

Research funded by: University of Washington Animation Research Labs, National Science Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, Intel Fellowships, Electronic Arts, Sony, and Microsoft Research.

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