Professor Helps Bring Reality to Video Games

Photo: Professor James O'Brien has helped reach new levels of realism in his work on the upcoming Star Wars video game.
Skyler Reid/Staff
Professor James O'Brien has helped reach new levels of realism in his work on the upcoming Star Wars video game.

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Lightsabers, spaceships and masked villains are not things usually associated with reality, but research by UC Berkeley Professor James O'Brien aims to change that.

The computer science professor worked extensively on the upcoming video game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, employing research he first published in his doctoral dissertation at Georgia Institute of Technology in 2000.

Working with Pixelux Entertainment, a Swiss computer graphics company, and LucasArts, the company behind all Star Wars releases, O'Brien is partly responsible for the ultra-realistic movements in the game environment that users will be able to experience when the game is released in mid-September.

O'Brien's developments allowed game designers to more accurately reproduce the movements of stationary objects like trees, walls and window in response to force. For gamers, this means that a glass window, for example, whether struck by a lightsaber or gun blast, will shatter much more realistically than in most games.

"I think it's going to create a richer experience for the gamer," O'Brien said. "When you play a good game it

creates a sort of feeling of immersion, like you're inside the game world."

Instead of having to individually animate what happens when glass shatters, for example, O'Brien's developments in a field known as Digital Molecular Matter allow game designers to simply run the specific simulation and watch the reaction.

It took years to improve the technology so it could perform at the speeds seen in video games. O'Brien's original simulation models could take up to a day to run.

Working closely, O'Brien and Pixelux engineers were able to accelerate the models of toppling trees and collapsing walls to run in real time, a necessary step in using this technology for video games.

"You could play this game and have your friend sit on the couch and watch, and I think your friend would enjoy the experience almost as if he was watching a movie," he said.

The makers of The Force Unleashed said they are expecting to make a big splash when the game is released in September.

"This game will be revolutionary," predicts Pixelux Chief Operating Officer Vik Sohal. "(This technology) makes the game more immersive, more realistic. It puts you in a familiar area in terms of the physical movements involved (in the game)," he said.

But O'Brien said as much fun as it is to make video games, it can't replace the satisfaction gained from teaching the next generation of computer scientists.

"I really like working with students. The result (of working with graduate students) is that you can actually have multiple projects going on at once. It's very rewarding," he said.

Fortunately for gamers and students alike, O'Brien does not have to choose between the two.


Contact Nick Moore at [email protected]

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