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3 ways video games will evolve in the 2020s

From ultra-realistic graphics to more intelligent A.I. characters, the 2020s will bring some mind-bending video games.

Hirokazu Yokohara / Artstation
  • The video game industry will be worth an estimated $200 billion by 2022.
  • The growth of the industry is helping to advance gaming technology, which will allow for new types of gaming experiences.
  • Some gaming evolutions likely to occur in the 2020s include ubiquitous ray-tracing technology, smarter A.I. characters, and big-budget virtual reality attractions.


The video game industry is booming at a staggering pace. To put it in perspective:

  • The industry is worth more than $120 billion (more valuable than movies and music combined), and it's set to grow to nearly $200 billion by 2022.
  • Some 100 million people watched the 2018 League of Legends finals; about as many watched the Super Bowl.
  • By 2021, there will be 2.7 billion gamers worldwide, according to estimates.

With profits and industry growth virtually guaranteed, companies are competing to push gaming technology forward and create new types of gaming experiences. So, what are likely to be some of the biggest evolutions in video games this decade?

Ray-tracing

For video games to look realistic, they need to convincingly mimic how light behaves in the world: reflections, shadows, and changes in light after characters manipulate the environment, say, by shooting a hole through a wall. In most video games, like "Minecraft", light is "baked into" animated scenes. It's static.

Minecraft

With ray-tracing, however, light behaves fluidly, changing in real time based on where your character is in the game. Ray-tracing "traces" the path of light rays in the game. The light behaves sort of like real-life photons, which are emitted from a light source, bounce off surfaces, and eventually make it to your eye. Only ray-tracing works in the opposite direction. It turns out that it's much more efficient for an algorithm to compute the path of light from the character's "eyes" to the light source, instead of the other way around. And to make it even easier for the computer, the algorithm actually only computes the path of a few important rays, and then uses machine-learning to fill in the gaps.

The end result is virtual worlds that look far more realistic.

NVIDIA GeForce Minecraft RTX - RTX On/Off Gameplay

NVIDIA GeForce

Currently, you need a pretty expensive graphics card to play games with ray-tracing technology on high settings. But as the hardware gets better and cheaper, you can expect to see ray-tracing become a more common feature in video games.

"I think it's paradigm shifting," AJ Christensen, a visualization programmer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, told Wired. "There's a lot of stuff that we've been waiting to be able to do. The imagination far precedes the technology, and I think a lot of people are excited and waiting for it."

Reactive A.I. characters

One frustrating part of modern video games is that non-player characters (NPCs) tend to be clunky and awkward. They're generally limited to uttering a few lines of dialogue, or performing a few predetermined actions. But with better artificial intelligence, we might soon see NPCs that can react to players' unique behavior, remember past interactions and alter the game's storyline accordingly, similar to what Spirit AI is doing with its Character Engine.

Bethesda Softworks

Michael Zyda, the Founding Director of USC's Computer Science Games Program, told IEEE Spectrum that he foresees A.I. characters tailoring their behavior based on the player's emotional state.

"For example, say a pirate character is trying to make your life miserable but he senses that you're happy," he said. "The pirate's goal is to change your emotional state to angry by communicating with you in some way. Next thing you know, he's able to interact with you like a human would.

"Characters from novels or stories could be turned into interactive forms so we could talk to them. For example, someone might want to play Hamlet or one of the other characters in the play. Using artificial intelligence, Hamlet and others will be able to express emotions, have behaviors, and share knowledge. You might even be able to rehearse your lines with other characters. This is not like watching a movie—this is you interacting with others and being completely immersed in the game."

​Virtual reality theme parks

Virtual reality is becoming increasingly popular, and its gaming market is expected to be worth $33 billion by 2023. A recent survey shows that most game developers agree that VR gaming headsets will continue to sell and evolve. But these products have a key limitation: locomotion. There are currently several common ways to move yourself (or your player) through a virtual world, such as: using a joystick, walking in place, or pointing and teleporting.

But what if you designed a physical space to match the virtual world? That's the hook of big-budget attractions like Disney's Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, produced by ILMxLAB and The VOID, which allows players to move untethered through a physical set that matches a VR game. Sure, it's rather expensive, and the games are limited because the virtual worlds more or less have to spatially match the physical set, for safety reasons. But it seems likely that these types of attractions are going to become more of a draw. At least until VR games deliver even better locomotion at home.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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