March 9, 2009 // 5:30 pm
- A start-up founded by former Apple Inc. engineers said it has developed technology that could bring film-like realism to computer games and change the way movie makers and other design professionals work.
The San Francisco company, Caustic Graphics Inc., plans to exploit a technique called ray-tracing that generates extremely accurate three-dimensional images. Ray-tracing is a mainstay of Hollywood studios, but remains out of reach for most PC users. A single image can take hours to generate; rendering a film can take months on hundreds of server systems.
To quote: Computer games and other PC software typically rely on a technology called rasterization. Though the results keep getting more realistic, developing an interactive form of ray-tracing has been a longtime quest in the computer industry.
Caustic, whose name refers to light rays reflecting off a curved object, says it is close to achieving that goal. The company says its software and chips allow graphics chips to carry out ray-tracing calculations at a 20-fold speed-up compared with existing PC hardware. It said it expects to deliver chips by early 2010 that will be about 200 times faster.
In a demonstration, Caustic executives manipulated a photo-quality image of a sports car, removing components and changing lighting and background settings to change reflections on the vehicle's surface.
"It's the first honest acceleration of ray-tracing I've seen," said Jon Peddie
, a market researcher in Tiburon, Calif., who specializes in graphics technology.
Caustic faces many challenges. They include larger competitors and the need to persuade PC users to buy a second add-in card containing its chips, in addition to conventional graphics accelerators.
Caustic is largely the brainchild of James McCombe
, a 26-year-old native of Northern Ireland who worked on graphics technology used in Apple's iPhone and iPod. He left in 2006 with two other Apple engineers to form Caustic, a closely held company that employs 35 people and has raised $11 million.
Mr. McCombe said graphics chips have hundreds of specialized calculating engines that are particularly good at rasterization, which converts three-dimensional models into pixels on a computer screen. Ray-tracing, by contrast, emulates the ways light rays bounce off objects in a scene. Graphics chips can't easily handle those complex calculations, which require extensive communication between processors. Caustic has developed ways to keep data flowing to them efficiently, Mr. McCombe said.
Armed with the technology, Caustic executives say, designers who now work with the software equivalent of stick figures could manipulate realistic designs -- without having to stop to render their images periodically. "This would really represent a breakthrough for us," said Ron Frankel
, president of Proof Inc., which develops "pre-visualizations" to show film directors and designers how movie scenes might be shot.
The company hopes to initially target architects, engineers and animators, and later entertainment applications on PCs and gaming consoles. Mr. McCombe expects accelerator cards using its chips to cost about the same as existing graphics accelerators, adding that its circuitry eventually could be combined with graphics chips. High-end graphics cards typically cost several hundred dollars.
But exploiting Caustic's chips will require modifications to existing ray-tracing programs. Other companies, meanwhile, are finding ways to do ray-tracing using the microprocessors in PCs, rather than graphics chips. One is Bunkspeed Inc., which has a program called HyperShot that can make photo-quality images from three-dimensional computer models.
, Bunkspeed's chief executive, says that Caustic also faces potential competition from larger chip makers that include Intel Corp. and Nvidia Corp. The latter is collaborating with Mental Images GmbH, a software maker Nvidia acquired in 2007, to accelerate ray-tracing using graphics chips.
Mr. McCombe "is one of the smartest people in the business," says Rolf Herken, Mental Images' chief executive and chief technology officer. But "whether Caustic will have an impact on the design of future chips, that is an open question," he added.