What can the automotive world learn from the gaming industry about 3D graphics?

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The videogame industry has taken plenty of inspiration from the world of cars, giving players the chance to get behind the wheel as early as 1974 with Atari’s ‘Gran Trak 10’. The trend has held strong. Over the past 45 years, driving games have remained one of the most popular genres in gaming.

With the advent of advanced in-vehicle HMIs, this cross-industry influence is becoming a two-way street. The automotive industry now has plenty to learn from game developers when it comes to crafting the high-tech HMIs that are a selling point for modern vehicles. 3D visualization in vehicles is more and more common, and the lessons of the gaming industry have become an incredibly valuable resource.

Real-time 3D visualization

Real-time rendering is at the core of modern gaming, and is perhaps the most important example for HMI developers to follow.

The benefits are clear for the automotive industry. 3D visualizations rendered in real-time can help design and development teams cut down on the time it takes to get to a final product, because that outcome won’t require pre-drawn image sequences or animations.

Instead, as with videogames, models and textures can be pre-planned, with the rest being reactively animated according to the user’s actions. In the case of cars, that means the driver’s actions, and the dynamic situation around the vehicle.

Personalized view

Real-time rendering, when paired with the cameras and sensors of a modern ADAS system, has the potential to present drivers with a detailed, accurate look at their surroundings This can be customizable and will update with any changes in the environment. As in a videogame, where players can change the ‘camera view’ to suit their taste, so a navigation screen can be altered to suit the driver. The future of in-vehicle UI and visualization is context-driven, and real-time rendering helps to make that happen.

Mesh optimization

Mesh optimization – the process of reducing the polygon count of 3D models without losing detail – is crucial for functionality in gaming. Simplified models reduce render times and ensure that visuals take less of a toll on operating systems. For many games that require fast reactions, a good frame-rate relies on visuals that match the capability of the hardware. The same goes for ADAS systems. The use-cases for 3D models in HMIs are ever-growing, too. It’s the technology that’s making virtual manuals, real-time status updates and vehicle control exponentially more intuitive.

The practice of mesh optimization also makes it easy to reuse 3D models, textures and animations, and to tailor them to different operating systems. Instead of re-creating lower-polygon models for a vehicle with a lower-spec HMI, developers can ‘re-topologize’ existing assets. This cuts out unnecessary work, and is one of the processes that has made it possible for detailed XBOX and Playstation games to find their way to the less powerful Nintendo Switch.

With that said, mesh optimization isn’t a silver bullet. Shaders can have just as big an impact on performance, so it’s crucial to make use of graphics software that allows for optimization across the board, and a specific rendering pipeline for the target hardware. A holistic approach to ‘translating’ and re-using 3D renders is essential if the time and cost benefits of doing so are to make an impact. 

All this makes it more economical to ensure HMIs can be used in vehicles with different levels of computing power, and that 3D visualization doesn’t come at the expense of fast start-up times.

2D – 3D interaction

Game designers use 2D and 3D in tandem to provide information without distraction. Head-up displays (HUDs) are, essentially, the UI of the gaming world, providing players with information about their character, score, or the world around them. ‘Half-Life 2’ and similar games are known for their ability to present information without distracting the player:

‘It was simple, clean, and didn’t obstruct the…environments. The concise on-demand chunks of data made the cognitive load very light.’ David Candland, UI designer for Bungie

The HUD from Half-Life 2, demonstrating the interaction between 2D and 3D visualizationHalf-Life 2’s minimalistic HUD presents essential information without distracting the player

Similarly, automotive HMI developers are moving towards simpler, sleeker ‘flat’ graphic design when it comes to creating the necessary context around their 3D visualizations. This move aims to find a simple, elegant way to present said contextual information so that it complements rich 3D models, and to promote the proper layout of 3D models in settings that may traditionally have been rendered in two dimensions. This has been a challenge in the past, but with the introduction of new design tools it’s becoming easier and easier. The 2D elements are kept as minimal as possible so the intuitive visualizations can shine.

A shared finish-line

HMI developers and game designers share similar goals. The game – or HMI – has to be functional and respond rapidly to the user’s input. And both require the intuitive interfaces and polished graphics that sell the finished product.

The worlds of gaming and automotive production have never been more tightly linked, and they’ve both come a long way since the days of Gran Trak 10. As 3D becomes an ever-more integral part of the HMI experience and is established as a differentiating factor for buyers, it’s likely that lessons will continue to be shared between the two industries.

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