The other day an Alloy customer came to me with a weird problem that I never could have anticipated. Basically, they have a full PBR pipeline including physical materials, high intensity lights, and filmic tonemapping with automatic eye adaption. Their game also has a slick in-world 3D UI system involving an emissive holographic display. Independently, these things are great, but apparently they break down when put together.
You see, the emissive display looked great in typical indoor lighting settings, but would become unreadably dark when the player went outside into direct sunlight. The culprit was the automatic eye adaption responding to the bright sunlit surroundings and dropping the exposure to darken everything, including the emissive display. Essentially, this is the exact same problem that smartphone displays face in the real world.
So how do smartphones try to deal with this problem? They use ambient light sensors to determine the overall brightness of their environment and crank up their screen brightness to compensate. So how do we accomplish this with a shader?
It turns out that Unity provides all the information we need in the form of light probes. Specially, the probe’s Spherical Harmonic’s (SH) 0th order is a constant color representing the average of all incoming ambient light at that point in space. Thus, the luminance of this color is a pretty accurate measure of the light intensity of its surroundings.
With this information in hand it was easy to dynamically scale the display’s emission intensity based on a curve, which now made it viewable under all lighting conditions.