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Unreal Engine's 'Synthetic Human' Shows the Cutting Edge of 3D Graphics

New Epic Games technology shown at the Game Developers Conference is getting closer to crossing that uncanny valley.

Video game publisher and developer Epic Games wants to make digital humans that are indistinguishable from the real thing. It’s getting close.

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco today, the company revealed Siren—a “synthetic human” that was rendered in Epic's Unreal Engine in real time. Siren is based on the Chinese actress Bingjie Jiang. This isn’t an artificial intelligence, but rather a computer program rendered in real time and motion captured by an actress off-screen.


Siren is part of Project Spotlight—an Epic Games-led collaboration with digital studio 3Lateral. The team brought in actor Andy Serkis to perform a digitized version the “Tomorrow” monologue from Shakespeare's MacBeth. Then they used the tech to turn Serkis into a fishman.

“Instead of shooting individual shapes, we are now shooting a performance,” a representative from Project Spotlight said in a YouTube video featuring actor Andy Serkis. “Digital humans…still don’t exist. They’ll start existing when people on the street look at the data and can’t tell the difference whether it’s real or not. We’re hoping this is going to be achieving this goal.”

This is a big deal because the team is doing in real time, meaning we can soon see this quality of 3D graphics in video games, not just pre-rendered movies.

“The volumetric data was generated by capturing a series of high-quality, HFR images of [Serkis] from multiple angles under controlled lighting,” Project Sunlight explained in a blog post. “3Lateral’s process involved various capture scenarios, some focused on geometry, some on appearance and others on motion. All of these inputs were applied to generate a digital representation of Andy Serkis, and to extract universal facial semantics that represent muscular contractions that make the performance so lifelike.”

Pretty cool, and Siren is one of the best looking humans I've seen rendered in 3D graphics, but that uncanney valley is still there. You might be fooled if you see her out of the corner of your eye, but if you actually look at her, there's something about the hair and the mouth that doesn't quite match what she's saying that makes it clear she's not real.