Appreciation Through Rendering

After working on a project in 3D it’s hard not to see the world differently. Realistic rendering attempts to recreate a simple process: light comes from a source and bounces around until it hits our eye. Perfectly recreating this effect with computers, though, is staggeringly difficult.

In Unity 3D, rendering high-detail light in a scene is a process that can take hours. You set your variables — how many rays of light you want to simulate, how often those rays should bounce around, etc. — and hit the render button. At high settings this is a process that can take all night. Often, it’s a process whose length of time is completely undetermined when you start. You’re praying to the machine that your light render turns out well and that it will finish within your lifetime.

As your computer fans kick on, you feel a strange guilt about the strain you’re putting your machine under. You take a break and walk around. Your eyes pass around the room, and look out the window. You’re struck by how perfectly everything is rendered in your world. Not only how perfect everything is, but how effortless it is.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

You think about your poor desktop, humming away trying to capture a single frame of light. Desperately trying to connect the puzzle pieces of the blink of an eye. Looking out the window again, you wonder what it would look like if the world could break a sweat.

An hour later you return to your computer and the light render is finished. It’s not great. There are imperfections everywhere: splotches of shadow where they shouldn’t be, light leaking through walls that should be solid, and a pervasive graininess to the shadow color.

In this context it’s hard not to think about existence as running on some Universal Computer. Our puny desktops are simply trying to mimic a small piece of that machine’s results. But while the Universal Computer effortlessly outputs all of reality at a tempo that it defines, we desperately hack and cheat our way towards an approximation of the tiniest fraction of its calculations.

You think about all the times you witnessed an incredible sunset, or a beautiful moonlit night. The times you tried capturing those moments with your camera, but the photos just looked…blah.

The perspective is humbling. A reminder that reality is ceaselessly moving forward, endlessly generating and embodying an inconceivable amount of data. A reminder that for all we know, and all we can recreate with our machines, the map of our creations will never capture the territory of reality.


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