New graphics tech promises speed, hyperrealism

[From Wired’s GadgetLab blog (“Hardware that rocks your world”)]


New Graphics Tech Promises Speed, Hyperrealism

By Priya Ganapati
April 22, 2010

Chipmakers have spent billions of dollars over the decades to create specialized processors that can help make computer graphics ever more realistic and detailed.

Now an Australian hobbyist says he has created a technology that can churn out high-quality, computer-generated graphics for video games and other applications without the need for graphics chips or processor-hungry machines.

“Major companies have got to a point where they improve the polygon-count in graphics-rendering by 22 percent a year,” says Bruce Dell, 32, the creator of the new technology, which he calls Unlimited Detail. “We have made it unlimited. It’s all software that requires no special hardware, so you get truly unlimited detail in your scenes.”

Dell is an unusual candidate for a computer-graphics revolutionary. He’s an autodidact who’s never been to a university and who ran a supermarket chain for about eight years.

But he claims to have found a way to search through trillions of voxels, the 3-D counterparts to pixels, to render a scene quickly. Voxels have so far been used largely in medical- and mining-graphics applications, not video games.

Bringing voxel-based rendering to the world of video games is an interesting idea, says Jon Peddie, founder of Jon Peddie Research. That’s because voxels could take a middle ground between two current rendering techniques: the fast but not graphically realistic world of polygon rendering (used by most video games today) and computationally resource-hungry and comparatively slow ray-tracing technology.

“With voxels, you create a volume of points and look at those points to see what the picture is all about,” says Peddie. “That gives a very accurate representations of the world you are trying to render, without taking up too much computational resources.”

Creating lifelike images through graphics-rendering usually requires major computing power. To recreate three-dimensional objects on a computer screen, programmers define a structure in terms of its geometry, texture, lighting and shading.

The resultant digital image is an approximation of a real-life object, but has a computer-generated–graphics feel to it. It also requires intensive computing power, which means graphics programmers must have state-of-the art machines with special chips from companies such as Nvidia and AMD.

In most 3-D graphics-modeling programs, the virtual depiction of almost every real-life object, such as a trees or a stone, starts as a little flat polygon. More-powerful processors can help the software have more of these polygons, which means increased roundness to the objects on screen. With enough computing power, billions of little polygons can be generated, and each made so small that it’s almost a dot.

Another alternative is to use ray tracing, a method in which the computer traces the path of light through space, simulating the effect on the light as it encounters different objects. That approach creates much more visually attractive scenes, but it is extremely intensive in its need for computational resources.

Dell says Unlimited Detail has an alternative to these systems. It uses billions of “point cloud” dots, or voxels, to accurately represent a world. To render an image, Unlimited Detail then acts as a search engine.

Dell says his algorithm can quickly figure out the dots needed to render a scene, search the data to find only those points, and pull them up quickly enough for smooth animation. He calls it “mass connected processing.”

“Instead of putting a trillion dots on screen and covering the ones you don’t use, we show only what needs to be done and how you can manipulate those dots,” says Dell.

It’s all so new that Dell, who claims to have single-handedly written the software, is still in the process of forming a company.

So how legitimate are his claims? It’s hard to evaluate. Few graphics programmers or industry analysts have actually seen his software at work. Dell says those who have are bound by tight nondisclosure agreements limiting their ability to talk about it.

And graphics chip makers such as Nvidia are not impressed.

“Voxel graphics have been around for quite some time, but they are not considered to be as precise as polygon-based graphics,” says Ken Brown, a spokesperson for Nvidia.

Graphics rendered using voxels can run on less-resource-hungry machines, but they can’t offer the same level of quality as ray tracing or rasterization, he says.

“With voxels, there are issues that come up with shading and coloring the images properly,” says Brown. “If you look at the screenshots that Unlimited Detail has posted, the images don’t look all that realistic.”

Some of those problems can be ameliorated by using better tools, but it can’t be done by a one-man band, say Brown and Peddie.

“There needs to be an infrastructure around every new rendering technique,” says Brown. “There have to be SDKs, tools and drivers, and these are things that teams of people from many different companies come together to create.”

As for claims that Unlimited Detail can do real-time graphics rendering on a machine with a single-core processor and no graphics card, Nvidia people say they’re skeptical. Searching through trillions of points of data would require large amounts of RAM (random access memory), and Dell isn’t sharing any details on how his algorithm deals with that problem.

Even if Dell can validate his claims, it could be years before graphics programmers start using the voxel-based technique that Dell is advocating, says Peddie.

“It will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, because there are too many entrenched systems and legacy files to be managed,” he says. “Anybody who is making graphics-creation software like Adobe, Autodesk and Maya will have to change their way of doing things. That’s a pretty big thing to change.”

Major companies such as Microsoft and HP also have patents around voxels, and if Dell wants to go professional, he’ll have to make sure he’s not infringing on the work of other researchers.

“The jury is still out on this idea,” says Peddie. “But Bruce Dell seems real, very sincere, and the idea looks solid.”

To preview Dell’s technology check out his own video [8:05 minutes; available here].

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