Caustic Graphics

Faster Rendering at Lower Watt with Dedicated Ray-Tracing Unit

Alex Kelley, director of business development at Caustic Professional, a division of Imagination Technologies, has been waiting patiently to unleash its creation on the hardware market for quite some time. It’s a processor, but neither a CPU nor a GPU. It’s developed specifically for rendering. Kelley and his team call it RTU, or ray-tracing unit. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading

Let Me Be Your Renderer

I’m in San Francisco, 1,900 miles away from New Orleans, home to SIGGRAPH 2009. In Morial Convention Center, across Canal Street from the famous French Quarter, the animators who taught Buzz Lightyear to fly in Toy Story, the sound designers who added echoes to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and the CG (computer graphics) artists who painted Dr. Manhattan blue from head to toe for Watchman are stirring up new voodoo brews to stun us, conjuring up fresh magic tricks to bewitch us. At nightfall, I imagine the motley crew will spill onto Burbon Street, like the digital population in Will Wright’s SimCity.

But the news from the conference is also spilling into my Outlook inbox. In the past several days, it suddenly became bloated with press releases, announcements, and interview requests. Sorting through them, I noticed a pattern: The overture from the digital entertainment crowd to the engineering crowd is, “Let us make your 3D CAD files prettier.”

Mental Images, a household name among animators, wanted to tell me they had just struck a deal with PTC. The partnership would make mental ray 3.7+ part of the Pro/ENGINEER Advanced Rendering Extension. Caustic Graphics and Lightworks told me they too had joined forces to bring an interactive ray-tracing product. Lightworks Artisan, expected to be available next year, will take advantage of Caustic Graphics’ CausticRT, a hardware-software combo that includes Caustic Graphics’ CausticOne accelerator card and CausticGL programming API.

Caustic Graphics’ chief technology officer James McCombe flew into New Orleans a few days early, to speak at the High Performance Graphics 2009 forum. He planned to propose his company’s API CausticGL as the standard programming language for ray-tracing. In the abstract to his presentation, he wrote, “Modeled after OpenGL, and incorporating GLSL, CausticGL allows the integration of ray-tracing capabilities into applications ranging from professional quality
renderers to interactive simulations.”

Bunkspeed, whose technology drives the creation of many marketing and advertising images, tossed an announcement my way, informing me HyperShot v1.9 is now immediately available. The company’s tagline for HyperShot is “render them speechless.” It’s aimed at “product designers, design chiefs, product managers, visualization specialists, product marketing managers, architects, engineers, hobbiests.” The lineup of plug-ins the company has delivered offer more clues to the type of content creators they are wooing: SpaceClaim, SolidWorks, Pro/ENGINEER, Rhinoceros, and KeyCreator users.

Also hailing from the show floor was StudioGPU, pitching its real-time rendering product called MachStudio Pro. In the case of MachStudio Pro, the use of the phrase “real-time” is not an exaggeration. Last month, when I met company officials in person, I saw with my own eyes how their product — software bundled with a AMD ATI FirePro 3D workstation graphics card — produced instant updates while someone worked on a 3D scene decked out textures and backgrounds. The company recently reached out to Google SketchUp and Rhinoceros users with the release of exporters to these programs.

For CAD and PLM vendors, rendering tools and add-ons have become a way to add values to their software packages. The ability to transform relatively plain-looking mechanical designs into shiny, polished photo-realistic models gives CAD users an edge over their competitors in bids and proposals.

The key, in my view, is simplicity. CAD users work in dimensions, features, xrefs, and material properties. CG artists bring scenes to life with gamma adjustment, bump mapping, UV mapping, virtual cameras, and key frames. For a CAD user with little or no exposure to CG, the instruction manual of a typical rendering program might as well be written in Greek. So a stripped-down rendering UI that demands fewer configurations and settings will go along way in securing CAD user’s interest.

In the coming weeks, I hope to have a chance to test-drive some of the renderers and report back to you. (For more on this topics, also read “Luxology’s modo 401 comes with SolidWorks importer,” June 19, 2009.)

San Francisco Startup Offers Alternative Raytracing Solution

A few blocks away from San Francisco’s business district, in a nondescript brick building, a small band of developers are churning out strings of codes. Buried in these lines of codes is the destiny of a new startup, Caustic Graphics.

In March, I had a chance to visit Caustic Graphics’ office. Due to mechanical problems, the elevator was out of service that day, so I climbed the spiral staircase to reach their office, located on the sixth floor. In the conference room awaited James McCombe, one of the founders of the firm. This Belfast native is also the company’s chief technology officer. If you own an iPod or iPhone, you are indirectly indebted to McCombe. During his employment at Apple, he came up with the embedded rasterization algorithms, the basis of the rendering and compositing technology used in these iconic devices.

McCombe gave me a glimpse of what he’d been working on, via a striped-down interface that had been created solely for press demonstration. The product of his labor was an application programmable interface (API) based on OpenGL and OpenGL Shading Language. He called it CausticGL. Reinforced with a purpose-build accelerator card, he expected the program would produce 3D graphics 20 times faster than the current standard.

Describing the hardware, Caustic Graphics writes, “At the heart of this card is the CausticOne, which uses a host of new raytracing technology and algorithms (15 patents pending) to offload raytracing calculations and prepare data for your GPU/CPU, unlocking its ability to shade with complete efficiency and performance.”

In the last several years, real-time raytracing has become the Holy Grail of 3D immagery processing. The champions on the quest include NVIDIA, which proposes the Graphics Processor Unit (GPU) as the ideal solution to the problem. With the introduction of its general purpose parallel computing architecture CUDA (a C-based programming environment), NVIDIA hopes to capture some of the market segments (among them, gaming and mechanical simulation) currently served by the Central Processing Unit (CPU).

The GPU-CPU Debate

At the heart of the GPU-CPU debate is this simple question: To get better graphics performance, should you invest in a more powerful CPU or an add-on graphics card? NVIDIA would have you believe you can get more bang for your bucks with the GPU. Currently, the availability of a greater number of processing cores in the GPU tips the scale in the GPU’s favor. (For more on this debate, read Tom’s Hardware’s GPU-CPU performance comparison test here.)

If NVIDIA is suggesting the CPU should make room for the GPU, Caustics Graphics is proposing that the GPU makes room for its accelerator card, CausticOne. The company explains, “Other technology vendors claim to have solved the hardware-accelerated raytracing problem via traditional algorithms and parallel processing. These vendors’ solutions, however, ignore memory bandwidth, cache performance and parallel compute utilization. Only primary rays get a performance benefit with this approach. CausticOne, on the other hand, delivers bandwidth-friendly ray processing that enables your CPU/GPU to shade with rasterization-like efficiency.”

This week, Caustic Graphics officially released its raytracing card and software developer kit to qualified developers. The announcement states, “The CausticRT platform is U.S. $4,000 and includes CausticGL, a CausticOne card, and one-year of firmware and software updates. In addition, developers may purchase a one-year subscription for U.S. $2,500 that includes support for up to 10 incidents. Also available is CausticEngage, a consulting services program for developers that want additional support in creating or porting their application to CausticRT.”

A Startup Is Born

In addition to McCombe, Caustic Graphics’ management ensemble includes Alex Kelley, a former Autodesk VP for media and entertainment, and Sandro Pintz, a former director of engineering at NVIDIA. Since the solution is a software-hardware combination, I’m guessing Caustic Graphics is actively pursuing partnerships with workstation vendors and software vendors.

Will Caustic Graphics’ raytracing solution take off? They have three essential components that characteristize a promising startup: a vision, a dedicated team, and a product with a lot of potentials. Along the way, they’ll have to outperform the GPU-only solutions in the market.

In the not-so-distant future, Intel is planning to throw its wildcard into the graphics game. Codenamed Larrabee, the CPU maker’s upcoming multi-core GPU is designed to compete with the graphics accelerators from NVIDIA and ATI.

I’ll be tracking Caustic Graphics’ progress over the years as the graphics market evolves. I take great pleasure in telling the stories of newcomers that successfully challenge established players. Perhaps Caustic Graphics will give me a chance to file such a report.