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With the excitement of Ground Hog’s Day and James Joyce’s birthday over, it’s time to take off the silly paper hats and get back to writing “7 things” columns. Here goes:

  • Jeremy Shopf gives a nice summary of recent ambient occlusion papers. AO is becoming the new Shadows—every conference must have a paper on the topic. Honestly, it’s amazing that some of these ideas haven’t popped up earlier, like the line integral method. If you accept the basic approximation of AO from the start, then it’s a matter of how to best integrate the hemisphere around the point. I’m not downplaying the contribution of this research. Just the opposite, it’s more along the lines of “d’oh, brilliant, and why didn’t anyone think of that earlier?” The answer is both, “because those guys are smart” and, “they actually tried it out, vs. thinking of an idea and not pursuing it.”
  • Thinking about C++ and looking at my old utilities post, I realized I forgot an add-on I use just about every day: Visual Assist X. This product makes Visual Studio much more usable for C++. Over the years it’s become¬†indispensable to me, as more and more features get integrated into how I work. I started off small: there’s a great button that simply switches you between the .cpp and .h version of the file. Then I noticed that other button which takes a set of lines I’ve selected and comments them out in a single mouse press, and the other button that uncomments them back. Then I found I could add a control that lets me type in a few characters to find a code file, or find a class. On and on it goes… Anyway, there’s a free trial, and for individuals it’s an entirely reasonable (for what you get) $99 license. By the way, you really don’t need to get the maintenance renewal every year.
  • As you may know, MIT has had a mandate for a number of years to put all of its courses online in some form—there are now 1900 of them. The EE & CS department, naturally enough, has quite a selection. The third most visited course on the whole site is Introduction to Computer Science and Programming, from Fall 2008 (and I approve: they use Python!). There’s only one computer graphics course, from 2003, but it covers unchanging principles and concepts so the “ancient” date is a minor problem.
  • Naty pointed out this article about deferred rendering. He notes, “A nice description of a deferred rendering system used in a demo—of particular interest is the use of raytraced distance fields for rendering fluids, and the integration of this into the overall deferred system.”
  • A month and a half ago I listed some articles about reconstructing the position or linear z-depth in a shader. Here’s another.
  • It’s the ongoing debate, back again. No, not dark vs. milk chocolate, nor Ferrari vs. Porsche, but DirectX vs. OpenGL. My own feeling is “whatever, we support both”. By the way, the upcoming book GPU PRO (which also has a blog, and has just been listed on Amazon) includes an in-depth article on porting from DX9 to OpenGL 2.0. Mark Kilgard’s presentation also discusses the differences, including the coordinate space and window space conventions.
  • I love human pixels. The Arirang Festival in North Korea is a famous example, check out Google Images. But that’s just a card stunt, impressive as it is. This video shows a technique I hadn’t seen before (note that some of it is sped up—check the speed of the people on the field—but still fantastic). There are other videos, such as this and this.

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Three events have got me thinking about utilities: Christer Ericson’s post, getting a Mac laptop, and sending my older son off to college (to Northeastern, in Computer Science – not my doing, he just liked his high school courses in programming). There are tons of useful utilities, from file searchers to spyware detectors to sound editors, and plenty of pages covering these. Many I use, such as FileZilla, Picasa, MWSnap, GIMP. Some I’m undecided on, such as IrfanView vs. XnView for quick image viewing (XnView is currently winning, but what I really want is trivial individual pixel examination built in – just tell me the RGB(A) that the mouse is over and I’ll be happy forever). Update: XnView wins! Going to the View menu, Display Colour Information can be toggled on, doing exactly what I wanted. That said, see the Comments below; now I have another one to try out, ddsview.

However, three stand out as just plain great, that everyone should know about:

  • Beyond Compare 3: compares files, that’s it. I’d been using version 2 for years; 3′s seriously better, and I’m happy to pay for the upgrade. I’ve found that which “diff” program is best is a matter of religious debate among programmers. Most of us have a favorite and can’t understand why anyone would use anything else. Anyway, this is my choice – compare files or folders, copy differences from one to another, easily edit either file, create reports, compare images (though this feature needs more oomph), plus a great try-before-you-buy policy: 30 days of use before it expires, not 30 days from first use.
  • Dropbox: This is my new best friend. For a number of reasons, I found myself often moving files between various machines via a USB flash drive. Slow, and a giant pain. Dropbox makes life easy for this and 58 other tasks. Install it, create an account, and there’s now a folder on your machine. Install it on other machines. Now when you move a file to this folder, the file is automatically uploaded to their server, then downloaded to all your other machines, almost immediately available on them. You can also put files in a Public subfolder and right-click to get an URL for this file, allowing you to serve up files to the web – extremely easy to do, beats manually FTPing, and you get 2 Gigs of storage free. You can also make private folders that can be shared with others of your choosing over the web. My latest use is putting my bookmarks HTML file into dropbox and pointing all my browsers on all my computers to it – update the file in one place and every machine then uses it automatically. Lovely. One caveat: when you move a file to your dropbox folder, by default you’re really moving it, since the folder’s local – delete it from any machine and it’s gone (well, recycled, but only on that machine). I tend to copy files instead, to avoid surprises.
  • Windirstat (Disk Inventory X on the Mac): This free utility does a great job showing you what’s taking up all that disk space. One key bit of info, that’s not obvious from the interface: almost everything in the window can be clicked (and right-clicked) on, giving still more information. Plus, it’s the only utility in its class with Phong shading (I knew I could tie this post to graphics somehow).

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