Titans of Space (Gear VR) - Recent Optimizations

Posted Dec 5th, 2014

I mentioned in my previous post that I removed stereoscopic 3D in favor of player comfort and a few bells and whistles. I then updated the post stating that I was able to provide an option to enable a 3D cockpit. This post goes into some detail.

When I first started out with Titans of Space, it was using a layered camera system to render the cockpit on top of everything else outside of it. This made things easy re: depth precision, and keeping the player at the origin. Then, when working on the Gear VR port, I discovered that there were some performance issues with using multiple cameras and received advice to take a different approach. The result was a single camera rig and carefully fitting the scale of everything into just that one view, and taking care of floating origin, etc.

As is, enabling full sterescopic 3D in Titans of Space for Gear VR results in less than 60 FPS and thus unacceptable judder for large objects that are moving across the player’s view (such as planets). Note that for Gear VR apps where the player remains stationary and there isn’t a lot of movement through the scene, async timewarp comes to the rescue and it will remain completely playable at less than 60 FPS with smooth headtracking.

Now that some time has passed with the Oculus Mobile SDK maturing enough to see a public release, and with newer & faster generations of hardware (the Note 4), I took another stab at a layered camera approach. The idea is that if you can render the distant scenery just once and display it to both eyes, with the nearby scenery rendered twice for stereoscopy, you can avoid rendering all that distant scenery twice. This has already been effectively implemented in a handful of demos for the DK2 (Time Rifters comes to mind).

The key question is whether it’s worth it to do so, as there is overhead in rendering distant and nearby scenery separately, even if the distant scenery is only rendered once. Turns out, this 2D/3D mode put Titans right on the edge of 60 FPS. It was good enough most of the time that it was worth including as an option, but not perfect enough to make it the default mode. By default, it will just render everything for the left eye and re-use it for the right. While in 2D/3D mode, I also turn off chromatic aberration correction as that has about a 1ms GPU cost.

Another thing I optimized is Earth’s appearance. It’s the first thing the player sees so it has to make a good impression. The DK2 version renders Earth using three spherical meshes, with a high number of polygons in each. One for the surface, one for the atmosphere, and one for the clouds which float above the surface. This makes vertex count soar and incurs a ton of overdraw on the Gear VR. So I simply got rid of the floating clouds, and they now appear on the surface texture itself. The normal map for the surface has also been flattened out wherever the clouds are so that the clouds don’t look like they are painted on. Anyway, the end result looks good and doesn’t kill performance (as much as it used to), and it means the clouds cannot move independently of the surface, but that’s a small price to pay.

What’s next for optimization:

I noticed in one of the Samsung Developer Conference (SDC) presentations that checking the box for GPU Skinning actually provides a benefit even if you don’t use skinned mesh renderers, because it “activates the DirectX11 profile”. That was not something I’m familiar with so I’ll be looking into that. I currently have that unchecked simply because I didn’t want Unity to bother worrying about a feature that I’m not using. Very curious if this provides any kind of a benefit!

There is also the matter of texture compression. When setting up texture import options (either on a per texture basis, or in the override in Build Settings), there are several highly efficient texture formats to choose from, all with tradeoffs. “ETC2 (GLES 3.0)” is the one recommended in the SDC presentation, and yet every time I fiddled with that in the past, I either get unacceptable texture quality, or there isn’t any perceivable benefit to performance. However, note that it says GLES 3.0 in parentheses. I’m running with the “Force GLES 2.0” option, as forcing 3.0 causes an intermittent crash that Unity is aware of and is actively troubleshooting. It’s my understanding that getting the app to work in GLES 3.0 mode may also provide a large performance boost. In any case, this is another example of why it helps to build something from the ground up for Gear VR – I’m starting with an experience where texture quality is a big focus, and would rather not take a step backward there on a platform that is known for having very high resolution.

Speaking of resolution, the text in Titans of Space is just as legible on the Gear VR as it is on the DK2. Despite the higher resolution display in the Gear VR, it is not much more legible, and the real benefit you will see in Titans of Space for Gear VR right now is a reduced screen door effect. The reason for this is that I am still using eye textures that have a lower resolution (1024 x 1024). I have experimented with increasing the resolution of the eye textures but wasn’t able to raise it enough to see an appreciable benefit to text legibility while still remaining above 60 FPS. As a test, I made an empty project with some spheres and cubes with detailed textures painted on, and ramped up the eye texture size to 2K x 2K. The difference is absolutely unbelievable! My mind was blown, and this is another big reason I am looking forward to continuing my optimization push.

The eye textures remain at 1K x 1K, but I also experimented with rendering only the information panel text at high resolution with everything else being the standard lower resolution. It was a very successful test, but the overhead for it is unfortunately too high for there to be any benefit at the moment. Perhaps other optimizations will enable this to be a possibility in the near future.

Finally, the UI system that I use in Titans of Space is not very drawcall-friendly. It takes a drawcall per label, although many of them are being dynamically batched. The existing UI code makes it easy to support multiple languages across multiple fonts, with smooth outlines around each character (unlike NGUI). However, it uses bitmap fonts, and requires a bit of preprocessing work to get the right look for each font. It also takes up a lot of texture space and bloats the final app size. When you open up the options or help HUD, framerate clearly suffers and is a simple demonstration of how brutal it can be to add a few more draw calls on a mobile device. I aim to overhaul all the UI stuff as soon as I can find a good replacement that can address each of these weak points. Unity 4.6 with its new UI system is now officially out, and as far as I am aware works just fine with the Mobile SDK, but am not yet sure if it will meet all my needs.