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For a man holding a hammer, the world is full of nails. The man with a brush and box of paints sees things differently, however. Existence could be an impressionist swirl of watercolours, fearsome waves of textured oils or skinny-looking people in a bar, depending if you’re Turner, Van Gogh or Picasso (Blue Period).
We don’t know if Julian Davis doodles in his spare time but as CTO of Geomerics, the Cambridge-based company behind the Enlighten lighting middleware, his professional life is composed of the subtle interactions of colour, light and shade. The future for the company is looking bright, though. Despite the sophistication of the technology, it seems there are plenty of customers queuing up to use Enlighten, which enables developers to quickly author complex real-time lighting solutions.
One particular focus at present is integrating Enlighten within the Unreal 3 Engine, something that Davis explains has resulted in the technology being used in a different way than the company initially imagined.
“We have people falling over themselves to use Enlighten to create static lightmaps,” he says. “Up to this point, in Unreal the standard way of creating in-game radiosity is to add a large number of backlights, which is a time-consuming process in terms of placement. Then when it’s done, you have to bake them into the lightmap so you hit ‘bake’ and go away, make a cup and tea and call your family and it’s probably done.
“Alternatively, if you want a really high quality solution, you talk to Illuminate Labs, order a copy of Beast, press ‘bake’ and then leave it for 24 hours to render. With Enlighten, we provide people with the ability to edit their lighting in real-time and then bake it out in a short period of time.”
Perhaps the equivalent of selling people a hammer and then watching them using the claw end to remove nails rather than the hammer end to bang them in, nevertheless, this use of Enlighten does highlight the value that developers now attached on a coherent approach to game lighting.
“People definitely recognise the importance of lighting in terms of mood, atmosphere and the other things we’ve been banging on about,” Davis says. Nevertheless, games still have some way to go compared to other industries.
“We were recently working with ex-Pixar artist Jeremy Vickery, and he was showing us the amount of time and effort spent in lighting those type of movies,” continues Davis.
“In Ratatouille, for example, it took six months of research to get the vegetables and food looking delicious. It was also useful to get Jeremy’s feedback in terms of refining the tools and level of precision Enlighten provides for artists. At the moment, we enable people to get 80 per cent of their work done in ten per cent of the time, so it’s a case of focusing on that final 20 per cent.”
And if that little lot wasn’t enough work to be getting on with, development is well underway for Enlighten 2. It was formally designed to tackle the problem of lighting large free-roaming games. Davis says that originally the plan was to provide Enlighten 1 for studios requiring interiors and small, confined exteriors, and Enlighten 2 for GTA-style environments. However, the new underlining algorithm developed for Enlighten 2 was so good that it’s expected the original release will eventually be phased out.
“It’s a bit weird because the new algorithm is considerably more accurate and that makes it faster. It also requires a bit less data so overall you get a faster, higher quality solution,” Davis ponders. The API and product documentation have also been improved, and with an alpha version currently being integrated into a client’s engine, it’s hoped Enlighten 2 will be ready for a full release in early 2009.
“We’re still selling Enlighten 1 but some of the people who are buying it will ship their games with Enlighten 2,” Davis explains, adding the first release to use the technology isn’t expected until the end of next year.