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Evolution of the 3D Industry

By Andrew Cross
Andrew Cross, Ph.D., NewTek, Inc.Not long ago the 3D community gloated that Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer would soon be out of a job: their 3D counterparts would send them running for unemployment benefits. Im glad that I didnt bet money on that world-view because the houses and cars of these flesh-and-blood actors confirm that they are not worrying about their impending demise.

3D effects have actually become less visible in most movies. The excessive computer graphics explosions and laser beams of a few years ago have been replaced with more subtle elements, like waterfalls where nature should have been considerate enough to put one. The 3D industry has just become a teenager and gained a level of maturity that it did not have a few years ago.

Compare the 3D industry with its older brother, the video industry and you can see the changes that may emerge. In the video industry, pricing and ease-of-use have made digital video-editing products accessible to everyone. If you look back ten years, video productions were not edited digitally, and the few engineers who had the luck of working on prototype digital editing systems where just that, engineers. They had to understand the intricacies and limitations of the systems, and how to work around the inevitable problems when they arose. Indeed, almost every digitally-edited project gained wide acclaim for pushing the frontiers of the science of digital editing.

Today, the typical video engineer is not an engineer and no longer needs to understand the inner workings of a video-editing system, and productions no longer push the frontiers of science. Instead, video production has broken its chains from network television and broadcasting, and rocketed to new heights. Video production is used today in areas as diverse as video kiosks, wedding DVDs and Web page animation.

In many ways, the 3D industry is on the verge of the same growth process as video. This growth is also driven by recent price drops in the major applications, increased ease-of-use and the basic fact that you no longer need a Ph.D. in mathematics to understand the principles of modeling and animation. Over the next few years, we will see 3D used in unimaginable ways, and not exclusively by the aristocracy of the 3D world.

This vision of a democratic 3D future is exciting to many, and it is just the beginning. If we look again at the video industry as an example, we see that a revolution is underway that will turn video as we know it upside down: the real-time revolution. The difference between a video-editing application that can achieve 29.9 frames per second and one that can take 29.97 is not 0.07; it is one of creativity. Real-time is to the video and 3D industry what eyesight is to a painter. For some time now, the high-end of video-editing applications have been real-time; the true revolution, however, is at the low-end. The first applications have appeared at the low-end that perform edits in real-time and thus no longer require any rendering.

The 3D industry is not at the same stage as the video industry, but has come a very long way, very quickly. Only five years ago, mere mortals were working on wire-frame views with models of a few thousand polygons. Today we work interactively on models with more polygons than can ever be counted, all in textured, shaded viewports. The one barrier that still stands firm is the uncrossable wall between a preview and a render; these are still fundamentally different processes, and one still needs time budgeted for it.

The change that will bridge the gap between these opposing positions is driven by the rapid development of graphics acceleration hardware. Development in this area has progressed faster than Moores law , and faster than most applications can take advantage of the new features. To illustrate the staggering pace of the graphics acceleration industry, look back only about ten years to the state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics Reality Engine.

The Reality Engine was a graphics sub-system made by Silicon Graphics that had eight dedicated processors, was larger and heavier than you could fit in any non-Texan sized car and cost about a million dollars. If you apply Moores law to this system, an equivalent 3D graphics accelerator today should cost about $20,000. No graphics cards for the PC cost that price today; indeed for about one 5,000th of the price of a Reality Engine you can buy a graphics card for your home computer that compares to the performance of the Reality Engine.

Some true technological barriers may slow similar advances in graphics accelerators over the next ten years?an imbalance exists in the ability of the rest of the system, which has followed Moores law, to deliver data to the graphics sub-system sufficiently fast. Yet, it is still hard to imagine we will not reach a point where the number and quality of rendered polygons will make todays rendering process obsolete and the sitting around, sipping coffee and waiting will be gone. (You might want to sell any shares you have in caffeinated beverage companies, who are the first to suffer when computer speeds increase!)

Imagine what the 3D world will be like when you see a fully-rendered image in a viewport, and all interaction with the scene occurs in real-time. The implications of this step are fundamental: you will no longer work partially blindfolded by changes that are a preview render away. You will no longer work with rendered files?just as a desktop publishing application can import text documents directly, so a compositing or finishing application will import 3D creations directly.

To many, this is the point at which the 3D industry truly reaches maturity.

Andrew Cross, Ph.D., vice president of Video Software Engineering, joined NewTek in 1998 as a senior software engineer. Since that time, Cross was promoted to lead engineer on the Video Toaster [2] project. Prior to joining NewTek, he was a freelance programmer of graphics software including GenesisVfX, a special effects program for use with NewTek's LightWave 3D animation system. Cross has a Bachelor of Science degree from The Victoria University of Manchester and a Doctorate of Philosophy from The University of York. You can visit NewTek at www.newtek.com

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