Creative computing: Pushing eyecandy around

Back in 1993, during freshman year of college, my friend Brian McEntire introduced me to the “demoscene“, which is, at its best, a group of extremely highly skilled (and often very young) computer sound/video programmers who specialize in creating dazzling presentations that run in real-time on computers. Demoscene folks spend a lot of time trying to out-program each other, showing off what kind of amazing audio and visual effects they can do with computer hardware. Demos at the time were amazing to watch. When I watch the older demos now, 14 years later, they seem very quaint and primitive.

Second Reality, a demo by Future Crew, one of the most famous demo groups back in the 1990s. This was cutting-edge realtime PC sound and graphics back then.

Some of the best demos have come out of the Assembly demoparty, an annual Finnish gathering of demoscene enthusiasts which features a demo competition. Many people enter their productions into the competition, and the winning entries are usually very high quality. The recent Assembly demoparty was held in August 2007, and I was amazed by the creative and dream-like stylistic quality of the winning demo, LifeForce, by Andromeda Software Development, a Greek demogroup.

Screenshots from LifeForce by Andromedia Software Development. Click for a larger view.

To see this production in glorious motion, download the high-quality 246MB AVI movie file via this link. It is a much better experience than watching the embedded lower-quality YouTube version below.

LifeForce demo. Youtube does not do it justice. Get the high-resolution version!!

The pure skill and creative talent needed to generate these real-time productions (the animations are NOT pre-rendered), combined with the fact that the best demo groups consist mostly of teenagers and very young adults simply doing this stuff for fun in their free time, continue to amaze me.

9 responses to “Creative computing: Pushing eyecandy around

  1. Wow! I used to love watching demos, back in the early 90’s. I remember Unreal and Second Reality, and there were several other noteworthy ones, which I may try to dig up later this week. The demos were very small, considering the amount of audio/video effects that were packed into them.

    One thing to consider, when looking at the old ones, is what type of machines we used to run them on… I’m thinking I started watching them on my 386/40; I was trying to find the specs for that machine, but the only old specs I can find right now are for the PC I got around 1994-1995 (this info taken from my old BBS’s system info file):
    […] Pentium/90 with: 16 megs of RAM, a 1.26 gig hard drive, a 213 meg hard drive, an Orchid Fahrenheit 64 bit PCI video card with 2 megs VRAM,Practical Peripherals PM14400FXSA 14.4kbps v.32bis modem, Pro Audio Spectrum 16 bit sound card, Genius 3 button trackball mouse, 101-key enhanced keyboard,
    MS-DOS 6.22 […]

    Anyways, my point is: We didn’t have fancy 3d accelerating graphics cards or CPUs with extra-special floating-point math/3d rendering enhancements. Heck, many 386’s and 486’s didn’t even have math coprocessors.

    I didn’t realize people were still making these things. I’ve wondered, from time to time, but have never actually tried to find out. Thanks for the nostalgia and the current demo info. I’m downloading the full-resolution LifeForce now!

  2. Spugbrap, did you get a chance to watch the full-resolution LifeForce? What do you think? How do you think it compares to the oldschool demos?

    It is amazing how far along the raw graphics processing power has come since the 386/486 days. And it’s only been about a dozen years. Damn, it still makes me feel old though.

    Some of the oldschool effects that seem primitive now were quite clever back in their time. For example, the raster bar (aka “copper bar”) effect was done using a clever trick with the graphics hardware. The resulting effect was something that was not perceived to be possible within the capabilities of the graphics hardware.

    I think those kinds of hardware limitations inspire great creativity. Just imagine how limiting the computer hardware was on the Apollo missions in the 1960s.

  3. Yes, I watched it. But I was kind of disappointed, for two main reasons. Back in the day, with demos like Unreal, Second Reality, and lots of others that I can’t remember now, they came as reasonably small EXE files.

    LifeForce is a HUGE (246MB) AVI movie file.

    I’ve seen fancy graphics and effects in movies and TV, so the wow factor is reduced by the fact that this demo is a movie.

    The old demos amazed me because the fact that they were compact EXE files really showed that the cool tricks were being generated by pure mathematical genius.

    They also amazed me because I tried first-hand to reproduce some of the effects. My good friend Jeff Scanlon was into graphics programming, at the time (somewhere around 1991-1994), and he challenged me to build a 3d starfield, and later, to make the copper bars effect that you mentioned.

    It didn’t come easy to me! It was fun, but definitely made me gain even more respect and admiration for the demo groups.

    Now, I was certainly impressed by some aspects of LifeForce, but some of it just bored me. The “wow, I bet that wasn’t easy to make” is still there; I don’t think I could crank out a demo like that, even if I read/researched and fiddled with code for a year or two (or more).

    So, I am still impressed, but the HUGE AVI part just detracts from my fully enjoying and appreciating it.

    Also, one thing I must note is that I only watched it on my laptop, so far. So, there were choppiness issues, and a few other things that were most certainly due to the platform I was watching it on.

    I plan to watch it at home, on my PC, which at least has a graphics card that meets the minimum requirements for Half-Life 2, and it has an actual sound card, etc. I expect that I will like it a lot better, viewed on that computer. I will report back with my opinion after I do that.

  4. The AVI is just a convenience for folks who don’t want to mess with the minimum hardware/software requirements. All the effects are still done in realtime via an EXE. In this case, it’s a 24MB executable which is not very compact (compared to the EXEs of yore), but keep in mind that the EXE generates all those effects in realtime, at a high enough resolution to produce a 246MB (compressed) video file. The video file is just a snapshot of what the video card is pumping out.

    By contrast, there are some really awesome 4k demos out there. It’s impressive what people can do with a small amount of code. Click here for a list of 4k productions, sorted by popularity on the demoscene site

    If you look at the multiselect box there, you’ll see that there are productions there that have executable sizes as small as 256, 128, 64, and 32 bytes! It reminds of my old Apple //c days, where’d I’d spend time typing in the one- and two-liner BASIC programs that appeared in the back of Nibble magazine. Clever programmers packed a lot of stuff into those one or two lines.

    One of the BEST demos I’ve seen recently in terms of size of EXE vs quality of production is Debris by a group called Farbrausch. The executable is only 177kb in size, but the extremely high-resolution, high-quality 3D realtime rendering is amazing. has the EXE version, an AVI version, as well as a high-def MP4 version. Check it out!

  5. Exactly. I thought the fact that it was an AVI was to ensure that people would be able to “see” it for perpetuity.

    For example, try seeing LUMINATI.EXE on your computer now and have it look as intended…

    download it at — can you believe I couldn’t find it and had to go find it on a demoscene ftp?

    It probably wont work, but maybe you can get it working.

    goto 6:03 @ (it will take a bit to load) if you want to see it on a DOS box (video).

    At this point, I’d rather have the AVI *and* the EXE.

    (zipped… I don’t like leaving them unzipped anymore, having them zipped is better defense than a virus scanner, I swear. At least if you’ve got a perpetual sporadic reoccuring case of w32.licum/w32.gael)

    But the AVI is what I would use. Especially if I were going to show it to people. I wouldn’t want a technical error to mess it up. I don’t have trouble playing AVIs, but random EXEs often do not work as intended. And don’t forget standalone burn, iphone, whatever these crazy kids want to do these days…

  6. Hello guys, the actual executable filesize is 24Mb, 10 of which is just the music (which was rendered as an ogg file at relatively high bitrate). The demo code itself is relatively small (less than a megabyte) but the data (3d models, hi-res uncompressed textures and 2d images) take up a lot of space which is something you really cannot avoid if you intend your demo to be replayed at high resolutions (the Assembly requirement for demos this year was for them to be replayed at High Definition .. I think at least 720p).

    Sure, procedural textures can generate hi-res images that can fit into a 64k executable (or a 4k) but you can’t easily create so detailed textures (if at all) with procedural generation.

    But anyhow, let’s face it.. even a 24mb package is nowadays considered quite compact for an 8 minute + demo if you keep in mind that everyone has broadband and people are downloading 350mb tv series episodes through torrents on a weekly or even daily basis =)

    Still, I’m really glad that you liked Lifeforce. We spent quite a lot of time and it is definately the one asd demos that provokes deep emotions.

  7. aMUSiC, it is very nice to hear from you. Thanks for the info about how your group produced the Lifeforce; I am always interested to hear how these things are put together. I think the only way that I could claim that a 24M executable was not compact was by comparing it to filesizes in the bygone era of the demo scene from around 10 years ago, when everything was small enough to pass around on 1.44M floppy disks!

    I look forward to more productions from ASD – are there any in progress that you can tell us about?

    Keep up the great work!!

  8. We always have something up our sleeve =P A little bit of patience though =) These things take time.. Lifeforce took us about 6 months.

  9. I look forward to seeing to result of all your hard work!

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