Cutting edge computer graphics: a 22-year retrospective

This great Metafilter post by Codacorolla links to cutting edge computer graphics demos for all the years from 1989 to 2010. It's a vivid demonstration of the astounding rate of change in CGI, and a humbling reminder that this year's jaw-dropping CGI is next year's chunky, awkward crudity.

The future, for a little while anyway


    1. No joke, the 2010 demo was almost completely invisible. Like a bunch of dark, dark gray polygons on a black background are supposed to impress? At least IBM was loud and proud with their sky blue background and jaunty bright foreground.

  1. One thing I notice is that there’s no real distinction made between pre-rendered video and content that’s rendered on the fly.

    I actually think it’s pretty cool that the distinction is so apparently unimportant. A game that’s rendered live in 2011 looks more realistic / better than a video that probably took weeks on a render farm five years earlier.

  2. I don’t think today’s graphics are going to look like crud “tomorrow.” I mean the CG often used in movies, ads, etc, is visually indistinguishable from any possibly photographic counterpart. Certainly this isn’t always the case, but shocking photorealism is shockingly easy to create.

  3. “a humbling reminder that this year’s jaw-dropping CGI is next year’s chunky, awkward crudity.”

    That’s why it’s such a shame that Hollywood has more or less abandoned good scripts for flashy graphics. The graphics will be dated in a mere ten years, good stories last forever.

    1. Yay for the Utah Teapot!

      I have a Utah Teapot in wireframe tattooed on my right shoulder.

  4. Back in the late 80s we used to trip on an old VHS cassette of CGI called “The Mind’s Eye”, all of which would look quite chunky now. Remember “Lawnmower Man” Ugh!


  5. hmm .. that green bottle is either VERY top heavy .. or should have fallen off the table earlier …

  6. I have one of those “Computer Animation Festival” videos on VHS. It’s kind of a hoot now.

    I’m glad to see what seems like the end of the “OMG graphics!” phase and of yearly video card purchases. Minecraft and Angry Birds didn’t get where they were because of fancy lighting algorithms and SLI and CUDA.

    My predictions on graphics in the near future (from a game developer):

    1. Mobile devices will catch up to a large extent with consoles and gaming PCs — though speed is limited by wattage, heat, and the need to keep parts tiny and cheap.

    2. Technology revolutions in graphics will focus more on content creation than on pure rendering power. It’s the art rather than the tech that really makes a game look good now, and that will become increasingly more true — but authoring is expensive, slow, and a giant pain in the ass. Some clever folks will solve these problems and make boatloads of money.

    3. Hardware companies are going to keep trying to push the envelope but the hardware will become more commodity-like anyway. If a $800 video card that requires its own power supply performs 8% better than a $50 video card and has a couple of features that no games will ever actually use… yeah.

    4. The current 3D/stereoscopy fad will mostly fizzle out again. Occasional movies and games will use it to good effect, and others will use it as a stupid gimmick, pretty much like always. The Nintendo 3DS isn’t going to change the world any more than the Virtual Boy did.

    X. Minecraft and the Bit.Trip games and many others show that graphics fidelity/quality/complexity/etc. are not synonymous with game quality or even how *good* the game can look. (Arguably, WoW has always been the same, with an intentionally chosen lo-fi cartoony art style that eases the burden on their graphics engine.) Technology takes the back seat.

  7. I’m impressed with the IBM demo from ’89 especially given that those were truly pioneering days with no supporting software or even hardware unless you made it yourself. Technology that builds on the accomplishments of the past is truly powerful.

  8. I waded through the old demos and came upon this one from 1988:

    where a computer graphics artist wielding something a good bit more primitive than Adobe Photoshop manages to do in a few seconds what it would take 13 more years for a terrorist-controlled airplane to do the New York City skyline. It’s at 3:08.

  9. I remember that video, and how it inspired me. I delved fairly deep into 3DS because of it, not long after. Heh, I had a beta of the original 3DS before it was commercially available – the help button said, “This is help” when you pressed it…

  10. At the Spike and Mike’s animation Festival at Palace of Fine Art’s (back in the late 80’s?) it was fun to here people boo the credits for Tin Toy. Thanks Timmy!, btw.

  11. These early graphics demos, and cutscenes from movies, commercials, and games, were edited into a very very enjoyable video called Odyssey into the Mind’s Eye. They were cut together into themes, with each theme played to a soundtrack composed by Kerry Livgren (former guitarist of rock group Kansas).

    You can also see beautiful shots of cityscapes created for 3D rides. While watching Douglas Trumbull’s interview, I was surprised to see that he had a hand in it. I’ll probably never see these filmed models anywhere else again, since the rides have long been dismantled.

    I played this film to death, as a kid. It’s actually part of a series, but I haven’t properly watched through them yet.

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