Promit's Ventspace

October 15, 2014

Time Capsule Draft: “Speculating About Xbox Next”

Filed under: Non-technical — Promit @ 11:50 am

I was digging through my Ventspace post drafts, and I found this writeup that I apparently decided not to post. It was written in March of 2012, a full year and a half before the Xbox One arrived in the market. In retrospect, I’m apparently awesome. On the one hand, I wish I’d posted this up at the time, because it’s eerily accurate. On the other hand, the guesses are actually accurate enough that this might have looked to Microsoft like a leak, rather than speculation. Oh well. Here it is for your amusement. I haven’t touched a thing about it.


I’ve been hearing a lot of rumors, though the credibility of any given information is always suspect. I have some supposed info about the specs on the next Xbox, but I’m not drawing on any of that info here. I’m dubious about at least some of the things I heard, and it’s not good to spill that kind of info if you’re trying to maintain a vaguely positive relationship with a company anyway. So what I’m presenting here is strictly speculation based on extrapolation of what we’ve seen in the past and overall industry and Microsoft trends. I’m also assuming that MS is fairly easy to read and that they’re unlikely to come out of left field here.

  • 8 GB shared memory. The original Xbox had 64 MB of shared memory. The Xbox 360 has 512, a jump of 8x. This generation is dragging along a little longer, and memory prices have dropped violently in the last year or so. I would like to see 16 GB actually, but the consoles always screw us on memory and I just don’t think we’ll be that lucky. 4 GB is clearly too low, they’d be insane to ship a console with that now. As for the memory type, we’re probably talking simple (G)DDR3 shared modules. The Xboxes have always been shared memory and there’s no reason for them to change that now. Expect some weird addressing limitations on the GPU side.
  • Windows 8 kernel. All indications are that the WinCE embedded kernel is being retired over the next two years (at least for internal use). There’s a substantial tech investment in Windows 8, and I think we’re going to see the desktop kernel roll out across all three screens. (HINT HINT.) iOS and Android are both running stripped desktop kernels, and the resources in current mobile platforms make WinXP’s minimum hardware requirements look comically low. There is no reason to carry the embedded kernel along any longer. I wouldn’t want to be a CE licensee right now.
  • x86-64, 8×2 threads, out of order CPU. There are three plausible CPU architectures to choose from: x86, ARM, and PowerPC. Remember what I said about the Windows 8 kernel? There’s no Windows 8 PPC build, and we’re not going to see PowerPC again here. ARM is of course a big focus right now, but the design parameters of the current chips simply won’t accommodate a console. They’re not fast enough and that can’t be easily revised. That pretty much leaves us with x86. The only extant in-order x86 architecture is Intel Atom, which sucks. I think they’ll get out of order for free from the existing architectures. As far as the CPU, 8 core is essentially the top of the market right now, and I’m assuming they’ll hyperthread it. They’ll probably steal a core away from the OS, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they disable another core for yield purposes. That means six HT cores, which is a simple doubling of the current Xbox. I have a rumored clock-speed, but have decided not to share. Think lower rather than higher.
  • DirectX 11 GPU — AMD? DX11 class should be blatantly obvious. I have reason to believe that AMD is the supplier, and I did hear a specific arch but I don’t believe it. There’s no word in NVIDIA land about a potential contract, either. No idea if they’re giving the design ownership to MS again or anything like that, all I know is the arrows are all pointed the same way. There are some implications for the CPU here.
  • Wifi N and Gigabit ethernet. This is boring standard consumer networking hardware. No surprises here.
  • Optical drive? — I don’t think they want to have one. I do think they have to have one, though you can definitely expect a stronger push towards digital distribution than ever. There’s no choice but to support Blu-ray at this point. Top tier games simply need the space. I suspect that we’ll see a very large (laptop grade) hard drive included in at least some models. Half terabyte large, with larger sizes later in the lifecycle. That is purely a guess, though.
  • AMD Fusion APU? — I’m going to outlandishly suggest that a Fusion APU could be the heart of this console. With an x86 CPU and a mainstream Radeon core in about the right generation, the existing Fusion product could be retooled for use in a console. Why not? It already has the basic properties you want in a console chip. The big sticking points are performance and heat. It’s easy to solve either one but not both at once, and we all know what happened last time Microsoft pushed the heat envelope too far. If it is Fusion architecture, I would be shocked if they were to actually integrate the CPU and GPU dies.
  • Kinect. — Here’s another outlandish one: Every Xbox Next will include a Kinect (2?), in the box. Kinect has been an enormous winner for Microsoft so far on every single front, and this is where they’re going to draw the battle lines against Nintendo and Sony. Nintendo’s control scheme is now boring to the general public, with the Wii U being introduced to a resounding “meh”. PS Move faded into irrelevance the day it was launched. For the first time in many years, the Xbox is becoming the casual gamers’ console and they’re going to hammer that advantage relentlessly. Microsoft is also pushing use of secondary features (eg microphone) for hardcore games — see Mass Effect 3.
  • $500. Yes, it’s high, although not very high once you adjust for inflation. The Xbox 360 is an extremely capable device, especially for the no-so-serious crowd. It’s also pure profit for Microsoft, and really hitting its stride now as the general public’s long tail console. There’s no need to price its successor aggressively, and the stuff I just described is rather expensive besides. A $600 package option at launch would not be surprising.
  • November 2013. As with the last two Xboxes, it will be launched for the holiday season. Some people were saying it would be announced this year but the more I think about it, the less it makes sense to do so. There’s no way it’s launching this year, and they’re not going to announce it a year and some ahead of time. E3 2013 will probably be the real fun.

There are some problems with the specs I’ve listed so far. AMD doesn’t produce the CPU I described. Not that the rumors match any other known CPU, but Intel is closer. I don’t think one of the Phenom X6 designs is a credible choice. The Xbox 360 CPU didn’t match any existing chips either, so this may not really be a problem. The total package price would have to be quite high with a Kinect 2 included. The Xbox 360 may function as a useful buffer against being priced out of the market.

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October 14, 2014

Quick tip: Retina mode in iOS OpenGL rendering is not all-or-nothing

Filed under: Graphics — Promit @ 3:50 pm

Some of you are probably working on Retina support and performance for your OpenGL based game for iOS devices. If you’re like us, you’re probably finding that a few of the devices (*cough* iPad 3) don’t quiiite have the GPU horsepower to drive your fancy graphics at retina resolutions. So now you’re stuck with 1x and 4x MSAA, which performs decently well but frankly looks kind of bad. It’s a drastic step down in visual fidelity, especially with all the alpha blend stuff that doesn’t antialias. (Text!) Well it turns out you don’t have to choose such a drastic step. Here’s the typical enable-retina code you’ll find on StackOverflow or whatever:

if([[UIScreen mainScreen] respondsToSelector:@selector(scale)] && [[UIScreen mainScreen] scale] == 2)
{
self.contentScaleFactor = 2.0;
eaglLayer.contentsScale = 2.0;
}


//some GL setup stuff
...

//get the correct backing framebuffer size
int fbWidth, fbHeight;
glGetRenderbufferParameteriv(GL_RENDERBUFFER, GL_RENDERBUFFER_WIDTH, &fbWidth);
glGetRenderbufferParameteriv(GL_RENDERBUFFER, GL_RENDERBUFFER_HEIGHT, &fbHeight);

The respondsToSelector bit is pretty token nowadays – what was that, iOS 3? But there’s not much to it. Is the screen a 2x scaled screen? Great, set our view to 2x scale also. Boom, retina. Then we ask the GL runtime what we are running at, and set everything up from there. The trouble is it’s a very drastic increase in resolution, and many of the early retina devices don’t have the GPU horsepower to really do nice rendering. The pleasant surprise is, the scale doesn’t have to be 2.0. Running just a tiny bit short on fill?

if([[UIScreen mainScreen] respondsToSelector:@selector(scale)] && [[UIScreen mainScreen] scale] == 2)
{
self.contentScaleFactor = 1.8;
eaglLayer.contentsScale = 1.8;
}

Now once you create the render buffers for your game, they’ll appear at 1.8x resolution in each each direction, which is very slightly softer than 2.0 but much, much crisper than 1.0. I waited until after I Am Dolphin cleared the Apple App Store approval process, to make sure that they wouldn’t red flag this usage. Now that it’s out, I feel fairly comfortable sharing it. This can also be layered with multisampling (which I’m also doing) to fine tune the look of poly edges that would otherwise give away the trick. I use this technique to get high resolution, high quality sharp rendering at 60 fps across the entire range of Apple devices, from the lowly iPhone 4S, iPod 5, and iPad 3 on up.

October 9, 2014

I Am Dolphin – Kinect Prototype

Filed under: Non-technical — Promit @ 5:29 pm

I’d hoped to write up a nice post for this, but unfortunately I haven’t had much time lately. Releasing a game, it turns out, is not at all relaxing. Work doesn’t end when you hit that submit button to Apple.

In the meantime, I happened to put together a video showing a prototype of the game, running off Kinect control. I thought you all might find it interesting, as it’s a somewhat different control than the touch screen. Personally I think it’s the best version of the experience we’ve made, and we’ve had several (touch screen, mouse, PS Move, Leap, etc). Unlike the touch screen version, you get full 3D directional control. We don’t have to infer your motion intention. This makes a big difference in the feeling of total immersion.

October 7, 2014

Our New Game: I Am Dolphin

Filed under: Games — Promit @ 9:21 pm

After an incredibly long time of quiet development, our new game, I Am Dolphin, will be available this Thursday, October 9th, on the Apple/iOS App Store. This post will be discussing the background and the game itself; I’m planning to post more technical information about the game and development in the future. This depends somewhat on people reading and commenting – tell me what you want to know about the work and I’m happy to answer as much as I can.

For those of you who may not have followed my career path over time: A close friend and I have spent quite a few years doing R&D with purely physically driven animation. There’s plenty of work out there on the subject; ours is not based on any of it and takes a completely different approach. About three years ago, we met a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital who helped us set up a small research group at Hopkins to study biological motion and create a completely new simulation system from the ground up, based around neurological principles and hands-on study of dolphins at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Unlike many other physical animation systems, including our own previous work, the new work allows the physical simulation to be controlled as a player character. We also developed a new custom in-house framework, called the Kata Engine, to make the simulation work possible.

One of the goals in developing this controllable simulation was to learn more about human motor control, and specifically to investigate how to apply this technology to recovery from motor impairments such as stroke. National Geographic was kind enough to write some great articles on our motivations and approach:

Virtual Dolphin On A Mission

John Krakauer’s Stroke of Genius

Although the primary application of our work is medical and scientific, we’ve also spent our spare time to create a game company, Max And Haley LLC, and a purely entertainment focused version of the game. This is the version that will be publicly available in a scant few days.

Here is a review of the game by AppUnwrapper.

I got my hands on the beta version of the game, and it’s incredibly impressive and addictive. I spent two hours playing right off the bat without even realizing it, and have put in quite a few more hours since. I just keep wanting to come back to it. iPhones and iPads are the perfect platform for the game, because they allow for close and personal, tactile controls via simple swipes across the screen.

I now have three shipped titles to my name; I’d say this is the first one I’m really personally proud of. It’s my firm belief that we’ve created something that is completely unique in the gaming world, without being a gimmick. Every creature is a complete physical simulation. The dolphins you control respond to your swipes, not by playing pre-computed animation sequences but by actually incorporating your inputs into the drive parameters of the underlying simulation. The end result is a game that represents actual motion control, not gesture-recognition based selection of pre-existing motions.

As I said at the beginning of the post, this is mostly a promotional announcement. However, this is meant to be a technical blog, not my promotional mouthpiece. I want to dig in a lot to the actual development and technical aspects of this game. There’s a lot to talk about in the course of developing a game with a three person (2x coder, 1x artist) team, building a complete cross-platform engine from nothing, all in the backdrop of an academic research hospital environment. Then there’s the actual development of the simulation, which included a lot of interaction with the dolphins, the trainers, and the Aquarium staff. We did a lot of filming (but no motion capture!) in the course of the development as well; I’m hoping to share some of that footage moving forward.

Here’s a slightly older trailer – excuse the wrong launch date on this version. We decided to slip the release by two months after this was created – that’s worth a story in itself. It is not fully representative of the final product, but our final media isn’t quite ready.

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