GAMMA Professor Q&A: Dr. Etienne Vouga

Dr. Etienne Vouga is an assistant professor in the Computer Science Department and the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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His research is in:

  • physical simulation, particularly of thin, elastic materials like cloth, hair, and paper, as they deform and collide;
  • geometry processing and design, using advances in our mathematical understanding of discrete geometry to better manipulate and design using coarse, discrete data;

and applying ideas from these areas to solving problems in computer graphics, computational mechanics, and scientific computing.

How does the undergraduate graphics course relate to game development?

The most important skill we teach in the undergraduate graphics course is how to think in 3D: how transformations works, how they can be combined to describe the position and motion of objects in a 3D scene, and how 3D data is represented and organized using efficient data structures. The class also covers common techniques used in games to do lighting, shading, and shadows, and character modeling and animation. Although modern game toolkits like Unreal Engine and Unity have dramatically reduced the amount of technical knowledge you need to get started developing games, understanding how animation and rendering work “under the hood” helps you make the most of these tools, as well as find your way around asset-creation software like Maya and Blender.

How does your research relate to film and games?

I do a lot of research on physical simulation: how to model everyday materials like cloth, paper, and hair so that they don’t just look realistic, but also deform and move in realistic ways when you interact with them. My work has been used for special effects in movies like The Hobbit. In recent movies like The Force Awakens, the simulated effects are so good that it is hard to tell what is real and what is virtual; special effects in games still lag behind due to the much more strict time and resource constraints of consumer gaming hardware. I and other researchers in computer graphics are pushing simulations in games towards ever-greater levels of realism.

What do you see as the most exciting change coming to field in the next few years?

Although it was technologically primitive, Pok√©mon Go was a viral success, showing the potential for augmented reality to change the way we interact with video games. I think the next few years will see continued improvement on the idea of reading in the world around us, and blending it with the virtual to shape our play experience. Along the way we’ll need to solve many computer science challenges, since AR games need to be able to not only synthesize a virtual world, but also understand and react to our environment.