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Yves Jacquier (left) and Derek Nowrouzezahrai (right) pictured with members of the McGill Graphics and Imaging Lab on location at Ubisoft, Montreal.

OLIVIER BLOUIN

The tiniest detail – an oddly drawn plume of smoke or teeth with an unnatural tint – can yank video game players or animated movie audiences out of their states of suspended disbelief.

Such disruptions could soon be things of the past, thanks to a new Industrial Research Chair in the Faculty of Engineering at McGill University in Montreal.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada teamed up recently with Montreal-based Ubisoft Entertainment and McGill to create the NSERC/Ubisoft Industrial Research Chair in Believable Virtual Character Experiences. The chair was awarded to associate professor Derek Nowrouzezahrai, director of McGill’s Graphics and Imaging Lab.

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“In animation and video games, you can simulate to an accuracy of 99.9 per cent, where every strand of hair or article of clothing is rendered meticulously,” explains Dr. Nowrouzezahrai. “But humans are so hardwired for spotting that 0.1 per cent that isn’t quite right, so the big challenge we’re tackling in this research chair is how to get 3D renderings 100 per cent correct so that your characters are more believable and authentic.”

Supported by equal funding of $750,000 each from NSERC and Ubisoft, as well as in-kind contributions from McGill and Ubisoft, the $2.5-million research chair brings together some of the brightest minds in video game design, production and software engineering.

Over the chair’s five-year mandate, about 20 undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students from McGill’s Faculty of Engineering will work with a select team at Ubisoft’s La Forge applied research lab to develop techniques that will enhance the credibility of virtual worlds.

“McGill students will have access to Ubisoft’s full range of resources – from our game engines and data to the expertise of our technologists,” says Yves Jacquier, executive director, production studio services at Ubisoft Montreal. “By the same token, Ubisoft team members who come into the lab will have the opportunity to focus on his or her research instead of always being pitched into production to solve the challenge of the next game.”

Creating credible virtual worlds with authentic, believable characters goes far beyond accurate rendering and surface texture representations, says Mr. Jacquier. The physics of this simulated world – including the reflection of light and the movement of hair, clothing and other objects – need to align with the physics of the real world.

Solving this challenge has implications beyond video games and animation, says Dr. Nowrouzezahrai. As McGill and Ubisoft tackle longstanding computer graphics problems, they’ll be generating complex mathematical models with potential applications in particle physics, biomechanics, computational statistics, biology, medical imaging, robotics and artificial intelligence.

“Let’s say we develop a new, biologically motivated technique for synthesizing computer-generated images of skin; such a technique may also be adapted to detect melanoma given the model’s knowledge of how light interacts with skin,” explains Dr. Nowrouzezahrai. “Similarly, medical imaging with technologies like MRIs rely on the same type of physics we use to simulate lighting in virtual worlds, and the better we develop these models the more we can synthesize data to help doctors better diagnose illnesses.”

Sylvain Coulombe, associate vice-principal, Innovation and Partnerships at McGill, cites the NSERC/Ubisoft Research Chair as yet another great example of strategic public-private partnerships that expand the university’s innovation portfolio and diversify its connections to Quebec and Canadian industry.

“It’s a bi-directional exchange between our two organizations,” he says. “Ubisoft has brought us a challenge that requires a lot of research and that will involve a lot of our well-trained students, and our students get exposure and training in an industry-leading company.”

What’s also notable about the NSERC/Ubisoft Research Chair is Ubisoft’s commitment to sharing the results of the research. Members of Ubisoft and Dr. Nowrouzezahrai’s research teams will submit academic works for publication throughout the course of the program.

“One goal is to provide the broader scientific community access to our techniques, which they could reproduce and extend for their own applications,” he says. “Ubisoft fully supports this, which I think is just amazing for students at McGill and for the scientific community.”


Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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