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Xavier Magazine | May 27, 2017

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Bringing Characters to Life

Bringing Characters to Life
By France Griggs Sloat

One of Dave Miller’s earliest computer memories is playing a Star Trek game with his brothers in the department of physics offices at Xavier.

The boys’ dad was former physics department chair Ray Miller, and during the summer he would drag the boys onto campus for a few hours. While he went to work, the boys went to play. It was the late 1970s when computers were still new and rudimentary.

“The monitor was all black and white and you could move letters around on the screen,” he says. “The Enterprise was the letter ‘E’ in a grid of dots representing space, and the capital ‘K’ was the Klingons, and the photon torpedo was a capital ‘T.’ It also had a phaser, which was an instantaneous beam, but you couldn’t see it. It just told you if you hit your target.”

By the time he got to high school, Miller was so adept at writing computer code he was creating his own games about baseball or dragons in caves. And by the time he graduated from Xavier in 1986—with a stop at Ohio State for a doctorate in computer animation—he easily stepped into the computer gaming world, specializing in 3-D computer graphics.

In 1999, Miller joined the California-based game-maker Electronic Arts, and his work became the magic behind such popular computer games as The Sims. The game, which allows players to interact with a family in a house, was an unexpected hit.

“Within a month we realized we needed to start working on a sequel. We spent four years on that project.”

The improvements Miller’s team developed for Sims 2 involved making the entire environment three-dimensional. He wrote the animation code that makes the pancake batter pour into the pan, the water stream hot out of the showerhead, the toilet flush, the refrigerator open and the tub fill with suds. His code also makes a person’s hips and legs bend properly when sitting down on the sofa, the eyebrows lift in surprise and the lips pucker for a kiss.

“It’s a sequence of poses you have to go through to give the illusion of motion,” he says. “The fun part is seeing these characters come to life on the screen.”

Miller left California for Cincinnati after six years and now contracts with gaming companies as a private consultant. It’s still fun, only now he’s translating his game-making know-how into more serious educational tools, such as military training games.

This time, however, he makes sure that players can see when their missiles hit the target.

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