The problems associated with rendering realistic hair has held video games back for years. When Nintendo first created the sprite for Mario in the original Donkey Kong, it gave him a hat because it was too difficult to animate his hair. When video games made the leap into the world of real-time 3D graphics, things didn't get much better. Today AMD is officially unveiling its solution, TressFX Hair, that will significantly improve the look of virtual hair beginning with the new Tomb Raider.
Hair is such a common problem for game developers that they often go out of their way to avoid dealing with it altogether – as exemplified by these demos featuring realistic skin and facial animation. AMD's primary rival, Nvidia, has also taken notice of the problem – it demonstrated its own tech back in 2010, and some are speculating the company's PhysX engine will have a hair component. But today's announcement from AMD is a bit more exciting because the company worked closely with Tomb Raider's developer, Crystal Dynamics, to implement TressFX in a playable game, and because it will work on any DirectX 11 card (including AMD's competitors).
According to the TressFX press release, the DirectX 11 tech "treats each strand of hair as a chain with dozens of links, permitting for forces like gravity, wind and movement of the head to move and curl Lara’s hair in a realistic fashion. Further, collision detection is performed to ensure that strands do not pass through one another, or other solid surfaces such as Lara’s head, clothing and body. Finally, hair styles are simulated by gradually pulling the strands back towards their original shape after they have moved in response to an external force."
Unfortunately (and somewhat unbelievably) AMD did not publish a video of TressFX hair in motion with its press material, but it won't be long before we can see how well it performs. If the still screen shots are any indication, game developers will soon have a powerful new tool at their disposal for creating richer characters, creatures, and potentially worlds (since the technology has the potential to be adapted for creating fields of grass, for example).
Console gamers won't be left in the dark ages of hair rendering tech for much longer, either. Sony's recently-unveiled PlayStation 4 game console is not a DirectX machine, but Microsoft's "nextbox", code-named Durango, will be.
Square-Enix, Tomb Raider's publisher, has also created a new graphics engine that does an admirable job of rendering hair – albeit somewhat less animated – as demonstrated by a demo called Agni's Philosophy, which was shown during the PlayStation 4 reveal. In any event, it seems likely the PlayStation 4 (which uses AMD's chip technology) will get its own version of TressFX, but Durango's use of DirectX will make it more readily compatible out the gate.