Johan Anderson is a programmer who has dedicated his life to making games more immersive. From his days developing some of the most famous games on the Sega Mega Drive, he has been focused on creating ‘believability’. He famously laid out a series of 5 major problems that he would like solved in gaming – in order to make everything more realistic. Intel has just announced that it has cracked one of these problems and, in doing so, moved beyond DirectX. KitGuru straps graphics guru Richard Huddy into the hot seat for a cinematographically realistic grilling.
If you want to get to grips with the tough questions in graphics, then there are worse people you can call on than ‘The Don’, Richard Huddy. Apart from helping to create DirectX in the first place (hence the Godfather title), he has some of his own intellectual property in DX11 and has driven the developer relations programmes for ATi, nVidia and AMD in the past.
So, as GDC was set to roll into town, we caught up with Richard for a 1-on-1 interview to find out more about the Haswell graphics engine, some of the bigger challenges facing game developers in the future and what Intel intends to bring to market in order to help make gaming better for everyone.
Knowing that his answer may well touch on AVSM (Adaptive Volumetric Shadow Maps) and the joy of translucent material, we stocked up on caffeine, chocolate and Google searches.
We kicked off by asking Richard about the kind of things that cause issues for game developers. He told us that it’s the little things that humans are very good at catching – and it’s the little things that destroy the overall illusion of realism in an artificial world.
“For many years, you could tell the difference between a photo of a plane landing and an actual plane landing by studying one thing: The shadow at the point where the tyres connect with the ground”, said Huddy.
Huddy explained, “Humans are sensitive to many things when our brains try to crack the question of ‘real or illusion’ and these ‘contact shadows’ were one of them. But these days, increased rendering quality make it harder for us to spot issues with that particular shadow”.
“Water ripples were the same”, he continued. “Compare early 3D Mark examples where a stiff cartoon character was fishing by a stream, to the kind of genuine wetness that Half Life 2 brought to the table”.
Another issue – and one that remained a huge problem until Intel’s announcement – was the way light interacts with large lumps of semi-transparent material – where the transparency changes with time/distance.
We’re talking about things like smoke. Huge clouds of particulate matter, where the density (and, therefore, transparency, size, shape and shadow casting properties) constantly change over time.
Knowing, post-Larrabee, that it is not likely to win in a straight ‘frame rate shoot out’ with Radeon and GeForce, Intel has decided to play smarter.
The new maxim at Intel graphics HQ is: What is the most realistic experience we can deliver, at playable frame rates, using just an APU (where the CPU and GPU core are integrated into a single unit)?
In an ironic twist, AMD faces the same challenge with consoles. Having apparently won a clean sweep of the next generation of designs, they will be using a present day APU in an attempt to span the next 3-5 years. Playable frame rate will be foremost on their minds also – especially if TVs move to 4k resolutions.
“Among the development community, Johan Anderson is one of the heroes”, Huddy explained. “He is a very respected developer who, a while back, laid out the 5 great unsolved problems for modern game development. One of those was Order Independent Transparency”.
“The most obvious problems come from volumes of smoke or leafy trees”, said Huddy.
Thinking back to earlier version of 3D Mark, like 03, 05 and 06 – the fact that trees and leaves etc put such a strain on your system was the reason why large parts of those benchmarks were dedicated to sunshine pouring through leaves or following fireflies as they moved through a midnight forest with the moonlight streaming through the branches.
“With Haswell, we’re not only going to do traditional DirectX a lot better than in any previous generation”, said Huddy. “We’re also going to bring our own extensions to the DirectX API”.
“The first of these comes with InstantAccess, where the CPU can now render into a GPU texture without the need to go back out through the PCI Express bus”, he told us. “Just by implementing this new technology alone, we can pick up a speed advantage of anything up to 100% in terms of graphics performance”.
“The second new technology is PixelSync”, said Huddy. “This allows transparent system to participate in lighting in a way that they have not done so far. For the first time, it allows us to bring transparent work into the GPU in a well defined order”.
OK, from an outsider’s perspective, can there really be an advantage to controlling the order in which certain data hits your graphics processing engine?
“You don’t normally get this in DirectX”, Huddy told us. “So order independent processing can’t be done – and this is something that programmers definitely want”.
We asked Richard where the greatest pick up would happen.
“If you’re looking at situations with leaves, dust or smoke particles, you can now have greater and greater detail – and that detail can participate in the creation of more realistic shadows, for example. Doing this using traditional ‘work around’ methods could typically cost you 80% of your frame rate”, he said.
“With Intel’s new system, that penalty is a far more modest 5-10%”.
Huddy explained the importance of this new technology to game developers, “One of Johan Anderson’s 5 challenges for the future development of games was to find an intelligent way to handle Order Independent Transparency. With this announcement, we’re prepared to say that we have solved one of the 5 unsolved problems”.
KitGuru Says: The message from Intel in general, and Richard Huddy in particular, is that Intel is now ready to move toward a leadership role in graphics. It won’t happen overnight, but you can expect Intel’s integrated graphics engine to match up with the latest consoles in around 3 years. In the meantime, Intel will be pushing to introduce new technologies to developers. As well as adding in general benefits for gamers, these will have the added advantage of making AMD and nVidia look much slower in certain tests. All part of the Deep Engagement. Apparently. We thank Richard ‘Don’ Huddy for his time, make our excuses and leave.
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