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The video game industry’s biggest trade show was once again like a Disneyland for tech geeks. At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles last week, we saw the latest technological marvels that will be coming into games in the not-so-distant future. The most exciting 10 technologies range from platforms such as Epic’s Unreal Engine 4, which could be the foundation for a whole generation of games, to the cool facial animation from Quantic Dream that will be used in a single PlayStation 3 exclusive, Beyond: Two Souls. We picked these technologies because they show the innovation that is alive in the industry and because of their ability to delight us.

For a fun comparison, here’s a link to our story from E3 2011.

1. Unreal Engine 4 (Epic Games)


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Unreal Engine 4 could be the foundation for a whole generation of cool-looking video games. It is the newest version of Unreal’s graphics technology since Unreal Engine 3 debuted six years ago for the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. This new technology will likely be used in video games that run on next-generation game consoles as well as other kinds of game platforms.

The image above from Epic’s 153-second Elemental demo shows that the engine can display scenes with high-dynamic range, or regions with sharp details in low-light in the same scene as a region with bright light. The engine can also display millions of particles such as smoke and ashes or snowflakes.

Not only is it a cool tech, it is also practical. Epic created its Kismet 2 technology to make artists working with Unreal Engine 4 more productive. They can, for instance, make changes to their 3D animations and see the effects in real-time — all without having to consulting a programming expert. Unreal Engine 4 will compete with a new CryEngine coming from Crytek. We’re betting it will lead to video games that are like Pixar movies or dazzling light shows.

2. Facial animation in Beyond: Two Souls. (Quantic Dream)

Sony and Quantic Dream showed a scene from this game that popped our eyeballs out of our heads. The character Jody Holmes (played by actress Ellen Page) looks so real that it may cross the Uncanny Valley, the notion popularized by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, who argued that the more the appearance of a computer-generated character looks human, the more the human eye detects something wrong with the image.

The faces in the game look so real, with cuts and bruises discoloring the skin and sweat running down a face in just the right way. Quantic Dream captured these images using a novel motion-capture technology, said David Cage, director of the game. It used a motion-capture system that simultaneously recorded an actor’s voice, facial and lip movements, and body movements. It was thus able to capture lips moving in synchronization with the voice and a body moving in a coordinated fashion.

This game will set the bar for realistic facial animation, and all of the other game developers may be forced to follow.

3. Wii U gamepad controller (Nintendo)

This tablet-style game controller doubles as a television remote control and a replacement for a traditional game controller. You can use it in a multiplayer living room game against other players in “asymmetric games.” In these games, four players could use a traditional Wii remote controller to control characters moving on a screen, while one player with the tablet could use touchscreen commands or the thumb sticks on the tablet to place obstacles in the way of the characters. Ubisoft’s Rayman Legends game and Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. U game showed how players could work cooperatively in a game, where one placed objects that the other player could jump on.

For sure, Nintendo needs to make sure the system can use multiple gamepads, but we found the tablet surprisingly fun.

4. Xbox SmartGlass (Microsoft)

Microsoft found a way to integrate tablets and smartphones so they can function seamlessly with the Xbox 360 via a technology it called SmartGlass. This software application extends Xbox 360 experiences onto new devices that can enhance the user’s overall entertainment experience. For instance, while watching Game of Thrones on HBO, you can activate the Game of Thrones app on the SmartGlass tablet, which will then call up a map of Westeros, the fictional land in the TV series, and show you where that scene is taking place.

For games, the tablet could function as a separate game controller, allowing another person to join in the fun. The tablet could also offer tips and tricks that might be useful at the precise moment in the game that you are playing. The good thing is that Microsoft is embracing the existing base of tablets and smartphones in an open fashion. It isn’t creating an app that will work only with Windows Phone 7 or Windows 8 devices.

5. SOEmote face emoticon technology (Sony Online Entertainment)

A collaboration of Sony, Image Metrics, and Vivox, the SOEmote captures your voice and facial expressions via a webcam and pastes them into your in-game character in an online game. It also modulates your words into the pitch appropriate for your race, such as the deep baritone of an ogre or the gnome’s tinny squeak. The new technology could make communication with fellow players much easier and more intuitive, saving you from typing in all the words that tell another player how you feel at a given moment.

6. Watch Dogs city exploration iPad app (Ubisoft)

Ubisoft got a sustained round of applause after it showed a demo of its Watch Dogs original game. The title casts you as Aiden Pearce, a fugitive who has hacked into a city’s operating system and gained access to all kinds of digital secrets. He can control security cameras, change traffic signals, and eavesdrop on live phone conversations. The game is coming out next year and will likely be a big hit.

Ubisoft extended the fiction into an iPad app, which shows the city that Pearce controls. The iPad app indicates where your friends who are playing the game are and all sorts of details about the city, depicted in a cool 3D interface.

7. OnLive’s MultiView (OnLive)

OnLive found a new way to use its innovative cloud gaming service by creating a way for a player to watch the screens of three other players in a multiplayer session — without exiting the player’s own game session. Called MultiView, the technology builds on OnLive’s existing spectator mode, which allows a player to watch a streamed real-time video of another player’s live game session.

The cloud technology works by running a game in a web-connected high-end server in a data center. The server computes the graphics and other game code and then sends only a video via a stream to the player’s machine, which merely displays the video on the screen. In this case, the server simply takes four different videos and puts them into a single video stream. Then it streams the images to the player, who can effectively see the exact views that other players have in a multiplayer session. This could be extremely useful in a pro-gaming environment.

8. Activision’s gigantic booth display (Activision Blizzard)

We want this screen. Activision’s booth featured a gigantic 140-feet-long screen that played trailers from Call of Duty: Black Ops II and other titles from the company. The resolution was an astounding 6,336 pixels by 720 pixels. It was a little wide for most of the images, but the effect was tremendous when the videos occupied the entire screen. A lot of people stood by with their jaws hanging open.

9. Samsung’s SmartTV with Gaikai and Nvidia’s GeForce Grid.

Samsung just found a cheap and easy way to become the fourth major first-party company in the video game business. It is doing so using cloud gaming technology from Gaikai and cloud graphics technology, dubbed the GeForce Grid, from graphics chip maker Nvidia.

Samsung will use the cloud gaming technology to stream games to new models of TVs that are being sold this year. This will allow it to move quickly into the market, since Gaikai is prepared to start a beta test in the coming weeks. With a game controller and a TV, there is no need for a game console at all.

As noted with OnLive, the game isn’t processed on a user’s computer or TV. It is only displayed there. The processing takes place in a web-connected data center, or cloud. The game graphics and logic are computed on high-powered servers with good graphics technology. Then the visual result is streamed to a user’s PC over a broadband connection. The game can be played in 720p resolution (or for a higher cost at 1080p), which is similar to the experience that many users have with game consoles.

For Samsung, this means it doesn’t have to sell a game console to consumers. Those consumers simply need a universal game controller (USB compatible) and then they play the game on a broadband-connected TV. They can also play it on low-budget computers if they want, as long as they have the broadband connection. Samsung will create its own game network in deals with 37 game publishers.

10. Sony’s Book of Spells Wonderbook (Sony and J.K. Rowling).

With the Sony PlayStation 3, a Move controller, and a digital-friendly paper book, Sony will be able to delight kids using its new Wonderbook technology. The PlayStation Eye camera recognizes the patterns in the book and displays the appropriate imagery to go with them on the screen. As an “augmented reality” application, the Wonderbook blends your own image with images from the book, so you can look at your TV screen and see goblins dancing next to your head. It’s a magical application that happens in real-time, and its first app will be The Book of Spells from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. With the Book of Spells, you can wave your Move controller like a wand and make a dragon appear on your TV. It is a wonderful blending of the physical and digital worlds.

Please vote for your favorite in our poll.

[polldaddy poll=6302306]

[Photo credits: Dean Takahashi, Sony Online Entertainment, Rich Prugh]

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