Star Citizen’s first-person view isn’t like other games, where you’re essentially in control of a floating camera. That approach is tried and true, but not wholly realistic. In the preposterously ambitious space game, your view and your body are one-in-the-same, just like in a real human body. Problem: turns out, human bodies have a lot going on.
As we (and now, in a truly mammoth feature, Kotaku UK) have reported on multiple occasions, Star Citizen might be too ambitious for its own good. This could be read as an example of that, or it could be demonstrative of cool, game-changing stuff that comes out of a “jack of all trades, master of the whole damn universe” approach. Time will tell.
Either way, Star Citizen’s first-person camera owes its functionality to birds. Yes, birds.
In a recent developer diary, lead animation engineer Ivo Herzeg explained all the trouble his team’s gone through to shove virtual eyeballs into Star Citizen characters’ faces. First, they tried simply placing a camera on a character’s head, and it was like controlling a bobble head. Each motion of the body caused the view to dart all over the place.
Fun fact: this happens with real human bodies too, but subtle, automatic reactions in the eyes and brain correct for it. When we walk, it’s smooth, like our eyes are luxuriating in pristine slabs of butter. So first, the Star Citizen team added eye stabilization, which is basically counter-rotation of the eyes to make up for motion of the head and body. They did it by putting a focus point in the distance for the camera to stay trained on.
Problem solved? Not entirely. Herzeg said that eliminated about 80 percent of the bouncing. However, eye stabilization alone became troublesome in confined areas (say, on a space station) or strafing in front of walls. Worse, stopping in front of walls produced an ugly bounce back effect, one that definitely doesn’t happen in real life… unless you slam full-force into something. Those issues added up to a lack of realism and a surplus of motion sickness.
“This issue was keeping us busy for a while,” said Herzeg, “so we spent time trying to understand how we humans are doing visual stabilization. It turned out, it’s a pretty complex mental process, and there wasn’t a practical way to get that into our first-person camera.”
Techniques used in real-life handheld cameras didn’t cut it either, so they had to figure out an alternative method. That’s where birds came in.
“We learned that birds, or at least most types of birds, they have a pretty interesting problem,” said Herzeg. “They can’t roll their eyes around the way humans can. That makes it hard for them to keep their vision stable and move their body at the same time.”
“If you can’t keep your vision stable by moving your eyes,” he added, “then the next logical step is to try to do the opposite. Just keep the head stable. And that’s what they do. Birds have long necks, so they just counter-translate the body motions. It’s kind of a camera stabilizer invented by nature.”
In short, this is why Star Citizen’s first-person view doesn’t jolt around like your brain’s trapped in the version of hell that’s just bounce houses for all eternity: