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I’m at I3D 2009; tonight at the dinner Austin Robison at NVIDIA announced NVIRT, which is NVIDIA’s ray-casting engine. I say “casting” as the idea is that you feed it objects, hand it a ray generator and it gives you back the ray intersections desired. Certainly it can be used for ray traced rendering, and the constructs presented make it clear they have thought through this aspect: rays can terminate on the first intersection found (useful for shadow rays), or can return the closest intersection point (eye/reflection/refraction rays). Rays can continue on when a fully transparent object is hit. Objects can be put in any efficiency structure you wish, and structures could be contained by other structures (Jim Arvo’s metahierachies idea). For example, you could put static geometry in a k-d tree, which is highly efficient but expensive to update, while placing dynamic objects in a bounding volume hierarchy, which usually can be updated more easily (though losing efficiency over time) by growing bounds. You have control over what efficiency methods are used.

They’re thinking of this SDK in more general ray-casting terms: collision detection, AI queries, and baking illumination or other characteristics onto surfaces. I can certainly imagine uses for engineering simulation. It runs on CUDA, but hides CUDA programming from the user. By the way, the switching time between CUDA and the graphics API will someday soon be a lot less that it is now.

This SDK will be released sometime this Spring (it will also be incorporated with NVIDIA’s NVSG scene graph SDK, as a separate release). The SDK will come with lots of samples, including source fo a basic ray-tracing renderer. All in all, an interesting development. The catch is, of course, that CUDA does not run on anything but NVIDIA hardware. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating first step. Austin says this effort is a serious attempt by NVIDIA to put this sort of engine in the hands of developers, not some “let’s see if this research sticks” half-baked release. Hearing him talk about the bits of inside information their group learnt about the operation of the GPU, and the corresponding boosts in performance, makes me wonder if other GPU-based ray tracers out there will be able to get near their performance.

I have a bunch of links saved up, which I’ll dump here someday soon, as well as more about I3D 2009 (see Jeremy Schopf’s blog in the meantime). For now I’ll just mention one quick link: Morgan McGuire’s twitter blog. No, it’s not a “I’m drinking a latte and using my iPhone” twitter blog. I like the idea a lot: it’s where he simply puts any great links he’s run across, with a quick description for each. Low maintenance, minimal effort, and useful & interesting, at least to me. It’s about game design and related topics (and unrelated ones) as much as graphics. This is one of those “everyone who finds cool stuff on the internet should do this” concepts, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, there’s and similar social bookmarking sites, but a blog lets me know when there’s something new from someone I respect.

Morgan is one of those uncommon people who has considerable industry experience (e.g. “Titan Quest”) while also being in the academic world. He’s a coauthor of the new book Creating Games, which I had been jumping around inside and sampling snippets, and am now sitting down and reading for real. It is aimed at being a book for teaching a college course on making games, both board- and video-, giving a number of schedules for 3 to 4 week projects and worksheets for these. However, these are appendices; the focus of the book is well-informed surveys of a wide range of game design and creation practices. The first chapter has a great startup project for small groups in a class: “here are some dice and pieces of different colors, some paper – go, make a game in 7 minutes.” Anyway, not graphics related per se, but there’s certainly a lot about the computer games industry inside, much of it technical and practical. My favorite illustration so far is the dependence graph amongst the art assets for Spiderman 3, Figure 3.8 – daunting. You can look inside at Amazon. Me, I’m an avid boardgamer (I was up too late last night playing Dominion with Morgan and Naty Hoffman – consider me entirely biased), so I’m enjoying reading it and thinking maybe I should try to design a game…

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I noticed (or maybe re-noticed) recently that 4 of the 5 Graphics Gems books are excerpted on Google Books. I’ve added links to the excerpts from the Graphics Gems repository. Which made me wonder, can you look inside these books on Amazon? Indeed you can. So I’ve also just added links to Amazon’s Look Inside pages. Between these two resources you can now pretty much read any article from these books online, one way or the other. Handy.

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Time to clear the collection of links and tidbits.

First, two new graphics books have come to my attention: Essentials of Interactive Computer Graphics and Computer Facial Animation, Second Edition. The first is an introductory textbook for teaching, well, just that. Real-Time Rendering was never meant as an introduction to the field of interactive graphics, we’ve always seen it as the book to hit after you know the basics. The Essentials book is squarely focused on these basics, and is more event-oriented and application-driven: GUIs and MFC, instancing and scene graphs, the transformation pipeline. It’s truly aimed at computer graphics in general, not 3D lit scenes. Shading is barely mentioned, for example. The book comes with a CD of software libraries developed in the latter half of the book. See the book’s website for much more information and supplemental materials (e.g. Powerpoint slidesets for teaching from the book!).

Computer Facial Animation is an area I know little about. Which makes this book intriguing to page through -how much there is to know! The first few chapters are dedicated to anatomy and early ways of recording facial expressions. The rest covers all sorts of areas: speech synchronization, hair modeling, face tracking, muscle simulation, skin textures, even photographic lighting techniques. This is one I’ll leave on my desk and hope to pick up at lunch now and again (along with those other books on my desk that beg to be read, like Color Imaging – I need more lunches).

Which reminds me of this nice talk by Kevin Bjorke: Beautiful Women of the Future. The first half is more aesthetic with some interesting fact nuggets, the last half is a worthwhile overview of interactive skin and hair rendering techniques.

It’s worth noting that there are many computer graphics books excerpted on Google Books. Our portal page, item #6, lists a few good ones.

Game Developer Magazine’s Front-Line Award Winners have been announced. Our book was nominated, but to be honest I’m not terribly upset it didn’t win (our second edition won it before); instead, a new book on (video)game design got the honors in the book category, The Art of Game Design. The rest of the award winners are (almost) no doubt deserving, but the winner list provides little new information. It’s the usual suspects: Photoshop CS3, Havok, Torque, Visual Studio 2008 (really? I’d go with Visual Assist X, which adds a bunch of useful bits to VS 2008 to make it more usable). I haven’t seen the Game Developer article itself, which should be more interesting to see the list of runner-ups.

Update: it’s a day later, and the Front Line awards article is available online. Good deal!

I just noticed that Jeremy Birn has been having lighting contests for synthetic scenes. Meant more for the mental ray users of the world, I like it just because there are some nice models to load up in my test applications.

We mentioned SIGGRAPH Asia before; see the papers collection here and some GPU-specific presentations here.

A fair bit going on in the blogosphere:

  • Christer Ericson has an article on optimizing particle system display. I hadn’t considered some of these techniques before.
  • Bill Mill has a worthwhile rant on publishing code along with research results. This often isn’t done, because there’s little benefit to the author. Some researchers will do it anyway, for various reasons (altruism, fame, etc.), but I wish the research system was structured to require such code. It’s certainly encouraged for the journal of graphics tools, for example, but even then the frequency is not that high.
  • Wolfgang Engel has lots of posts about programming for the iPhone & Touch; I was more interested in his comments about caching shadow maps.

Everyone should know about the Steam Hardware Survey. The cool thing is that they recently started adding a history for some stats and, dare I dream it?, pie charts to the site. Much easier to grok at a glance.

Tutorials galore:

Need a huge (or medium, or small), free texture of the whole earth? Go here.

Google’s knol project collects short articles on various topics. Here’s a reasonable sample: a short history of theories of vision. To be honest, though, the site overall seems a bit of a dumping ground. This sort of lameness is proof why editorial supervision (either a single person or a wiki community) is a good thing.

DirectX 10 corrects a long-standing “feature” of previous versions of DirectX: the half-pixel offset. OpenGL’s always had it right (and there really is a right answer, as far as I’m concerned). I was happy to find this full explanation of the DirectX 9 problem on Microsoft’s website.

Our book had a little review in the February 2009 issue of PC-Gamer, by Logan Decker, executive editor, on page 80. I liked the first sentence: “I don’t know why I didn’t immediately set fire to this reference for graphics professionals the moment I saw all the equations. But I actually read it, and if you skip the math bits as I did, you’ll get brilliantly lucid explanations of concepts like vertex morphing and variance shadow mapping—as well as a new respect for the incredible craftsmanship that goes into today’s PC games.”

This one’s made the rounds, but just in case: the Mona Lisa with 50 semi-transparent polygons, evolved (sort-of). Here’s a little eye candy (two links). Plus, panoramas galore.

Finally, guard your dreams.

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So I had such plans for all the things I’d get done during the holiday break. Well, at least I fixed our bathtub faucet, and kept the world safe from/for zombies in Left4Dead versus mode.

In contrast, Wolfgang Engel, Jack Hoxley, Ralf Kornmann, Niko Suni, and Jason Zink did something nice for the world: gave us a DirectX 10 book for free online. There’s more information about it at the site hosting it, To quote Jack Hoxley, “It’s more of a hands-on guide to the API at a fairly introductory/intermediate level so doesn’t really break any new ground or introduce any never-seen-before cool new tricks, but it should bump up the amount of D3D10 content is available for free online.”

There are some great topics covered, including a thorough treatment of shading models, lots about post-processing effects, and an SSAO implementation (which I disagree with their specific implementation a bit in theory – convex objects shouldn’t really have self-shadowing ever, that’s why you usually ignore half the samples that are obscured, as a start – but SSAO is so hacky that it should be considered an artistic effect as much as photorealistic one). Lots of chewy stuff here.

Don’t be fooled because the book is only on the web, by the way. This is a high-quality effort: well-illustrated, the sections I sampled were readable and worthwhile, and there are solid code snippets throughout. The authors didn’t work out a print deal that they liked, so released the book to the web. You can see its original listing on Amazon. To quote Jack again, “We’re all glad it’s now out … for everyone to use.”

If you find errors or problems in the book, please let the authors know – the whole book is on a wiki, so you can add discussion notes (note: I found the wiki doesn’t work well with Chrome, but Internet Explorer worked fine). As the article notes, this release may form the basis of a book on DirectX 11, so could be considered something of a free beta. Please do reward the authors for their hard work by contributing feedback to them.

Update: Do keep in mind that this is a first draft (i.e., cut them some slack). Reading more bits, quality varies by section. I trust the authors will read and fix each others’ work as time goes on. I do like the wiki element. For example, there are some comments from Greg Ward in the corresponding discussion page for the implementation of the Ward shading model that should help improve their text.

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At long last, in stock

Lately I’ve been looking at Amazon’s listing of our book daily, to see if it’s in stock. Finally, today, it is, for the first time ever, a mere 40 days after its release. Not our publisher’s fault at all (A.K. Peters rules, OK?), and the book’s not that popular (AFAIK); it evidently just takes awhile for the books delivered to percolate out into Amazon’s system. Amazon under-ordered, so I believe by the time the books they first ordered made it to the distribution centers, they were already sold out, making the book again out of stock. Lather, rinse, repeat. So maybe I should be sad that it’s now in stock.

Anyway, the amusing part of visiting each day has been looking at the discount given on the book. It’s nice to see a discount at all, as Amazon didn’t discount our previous book for the first few years. With the current 28% discount, it means our new edition is effectively $5 less than the previous edition’s original price. Which cheers me up, as I like to imagine that students are saving money; my older son will be in college next year, and any royalties I make from our book will effectively get recycled over the next four years in buying his texts. His one book for a summer course this year was a black & white softbound book, 567 pages, and cost an astounding (to me) $115, and that was “discounted” from $128.95. I’m now encouraging my younger son to skip college and go into the lucrative field of transistor repair.

Amazon’s discount has varied like a random walk among four values: 0%, 22%, 28%, and 33%. Originally, in July, it was list price, then the discount was set at 33% (so Amazon was paying more for the book than they were selling it for), then back to normal, then 33%. Around August 14th I started checking once a week or so and also looking at Associates sales (a program I recommend if you’re a book author, as it’s found money – it pays for this website). Again the book went back to no discount, then on August 20th started at 0%, went to 22% off, then 33% off, all in the same day. The next day there was no discount, then the day after it went back to 33%. August 28, when I checked again, it was at 22%, and this discount held through the end of the month. On September 1st it went up to 28% off, and there it’s been for a whole 9 days.

The oddest bit was that, in searching around for prices (Amazon’s is indeed the best, at least as of today), I noticed that the first edition of our book, from 1999, sells used for twice as much or more than our new book. Funny world.

By the way, if you are looking to write a book and want to understand royalties and going rates a little bit better, see my old article on this topic. Really, it’s not my article, it’s a collection of responses from authors I know. Some of it’s a bit confrontational and might make you a little paranoid, but I think it’s worth a read. If you’re writing technical books to get rich, you’re fooling yourself, but on the other hand there’s no reason to let someone take advantage of you. My favorite author joke, from Michael Cohen via John Wallace, is that there are dozens of dollars to be made writing a book, dozens I tell you. It can be a bit better than that if you’re lucky, but still comes out to about minimum wage when divided by the time spent. But for me it’s a lot more fun and educational work than flipping burgers, and the money is not why we wrote our book. We did it for the wild parties and glamorous lifestyle.

Update: heh, that didn’t last long. I wrote this entry Sept. 9th. As of the 10th, the book is (a) out of stock again and (b) down to a 2% discount. 2%?! Truly obscure.

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