Friday, August 14, 2015

Between Photography and Graphics: Arma III, a Case Study of Enhanced Reality

A unique article for today. For a handful of you, the title makes it immediately obvious what this is about. For the rest, you probably wonder what Arma III refers to. It is a video game - a so-called first person shooter - taking place in the fictional island-nation of Altis. Only, there is a small detail: Altis is not fictional at all: it is based almost square feet by square feet on the real Greek island of Limnos (or Lemnos, as it is sometimes spelled).

Even if you are not a fan of video games (or first person shooter games, in any case), you would surely recognize it is an incredible achievement, to create a highly detailed computer world - a virtual sandbox - that recreates an entire island, with all its details, from the shapes of the lampposts to the textures of the rocks. The computer-generated Altis is Limnos.

Photo composite of Limnos-Altis (Arma III)
Computer Graphics vs Reality. A New Era of Photographic Art?

You might also wonder, what does all that have to do with Amateur Nikon and photography? Well, you might recall that I actually visited Limnos, Greece, a couple of months ago. I took plenty of photos there. The similarity between the real island and its virtual alter ego simply stuns me.

Today's article is both a tribute to Bohemia Interactive, the software house behind the creation of Arma III, but also, mainly, a speculative pondering on the future of photographic art. We have long passed the stage where computers could barely simulate a dog's walk. Creating landscapes that seem (at least in certain conditions) indistinguishable from reality is here, in your home computer:

So, what kind of applications would a photography + graphics composite have?
Answer: Countless.

Let's start with the most obvious one. Are you bored with a featureless sky? Would you like some clouds in it? Done!

Clouds as graphics
The bottom part of the image is a real photo. The top part - the clouds as well as the mountains - is entirely computer-generated.
But picture (no pun intended) this future scenario:
You're visiting a famous landmark, and you would've taken the perfect photo. But, horror of horrors, a car parked on the wrong spot, or a construction site doing repairs, is blocking part of your view. What do you do? Nothing. You go home, and you render what's missing or what you don't like.

Composite of Lemnos and Altis
Would it look better with half-shattered glasses? No problem. Just use a computer to render them!
In fact, I think there was a certain project that began some years ago that attempted to build a world-wide database of pictures that could be used to "patch" other pictures (I don't remember the name of the project or who was behind it; if some reader knows what I'm talking about, feel free to mention it in the comments). Well, the way things go, we don't need a database of real photos - just computer-rendered ones.

Composite Image of Myrina Lemnos and Arma III
The level of detail can be stunning - notice the lampposts

Naturally, there are also ethical elements involved. If you thought Photoshopping photos was an issue, wait another few years and see what happens. This topic has all the elements of a dystopic science fiction film, where reality and fiction can't be separated, evidence can be doctored, and societies can be manipulated even more easily than today. Imagine "news" coming out of a war zone with pictures showing the complete destruction of buildings (say, hospitals, schools, etc.). Then a government calls for retaliatory strikes, based on these "photos". In a world where images such as these can be easily rendered, the power of photography as an evidence-recording mechanism all but vanishes.

composite of sand-dunes in Limnos (and Arma III, Altis)
No, it's not 100% accurate, but we're talking about bushes in the middle of nowhere. I'd certainly call it "close enough"

Examining scenes closely, we can still distinguish computer-generated features from real ones. But the gap is closing very rapidly. I can imagine a future (not far from now) when Photoshop will include a "render location" feature - perhaps even used in connection with a photo's stored EXIF data (GPS + time) - that would access a cloud-based graphics database and allow the user to replace, add, subtract, or blend any portion of the photo with computer graphics.

You might think, worried, that this all but guarantees the death of photography. What's the point of attempting to take a photo of, say, Half Dome in Yosemite, when you can just render one? For instance, why should I visit Antarctica to take photos instead of render them:

graphic render of Antarctica rocks
A very crude image, made with the first version of Terragen (a free scenery generator software that is already a decade old). Far more advanced images can be created today.

First of all, no matter how much technology evolves, I can't see it replacing portrait photography in the foreseeable future. Software can render people, but not specific people, with unique expressions, in once-in-a-lifetime conditions . I think we're not exactly at the stage where you point at a person with some Star Trek gadget, then the computer can help you render whatever facial expression you want, from that particular person.

Secondly, there is the element of personal style. You might not think that photography entails creating a style that can't be replicated - and do you happen to erroneously believe cameras capture reality? - but true artists are certainly such photographers. To put this another way: even if you create an art-oriented scenery generator software (perhaps with the help of very skilled designers, input from photographers, and so on), you will still have people coming along and doing things with their cameras that nobody had thought of.

Thirdly, imaging technology evolves. Nikon, Canon, and the rest of the companies, didn't insist on putting the main bulk of their R&D on film, once they realized there's a new medium around. That doesn't mean film is dead, and it doesn't mean digital is not "photography". In fact, I wouldn't exclude it if we saw at some point some sort of camera-renderer hybrid. You know, it's basically a digital camera, but if it detects you blew the highlights on the sky (or, heck, if there's overcast), it downloads that portion of the frame from a graphics database, blends it in the frame, and voila! You have just taken a photo of the Eiffel Tower with a lovely blue sky in the background.

In conclusion, all this might appear as science fiction to you, but let's think of this: you travel back in time, the year is 1985. You see someone holding a brand new Nikon FG20. You tell them, guess what, no later than 30 years from now, we'll be having cameras that can give you perfectly usable ISO 6400, 11-point AF with 3D tracking, 5 fps continuous shooting, and you don't even have to load/expose/print film, for a very reasonable amount, complete with a decent lens - that has something called "vibration reduction". Oh, and it records video, too!

Can you guess their reaction? It'd be probably something like ours, if someone from 2045 came and showed us her/his Nikon H400 camera - H stands for hybrid ;)

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