Professional 3D explodes on the PC

Professional 3D explodes on the PC

Recent developments in hardware and software tech- nology have created a rapidly expanding market for professional 3D on the PC. Traditionally, powerful workstations have acted as dedicated systems for specialist graphics and scientific applications. These workstations have been available from companies such as Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems, and come equipped with proprietary operating systems and hardware.

However, with the emergence of high-performance processors, such as DEC's Alpha and Intel's Pentium Pro, demand has been created for open systems using Microsoft's Windows NT operating system. Windows NT-based systems represent the high end of PC computing. A Windows NT system is less complex, is easier to manage than a proprietary workstation solution, and often is better suited for corporate environments where data has to be shared among many PC users. Furthermore, Windows NT-based systems can offer better price performance characteristics than their workstation counterparts. This does not necessarily mean that workstations are being made obsolete by Windows NT, but rather that the performance bar on high-end PC systems is being raised.

Software developers have been quick to seize the opportunity for making better use of the PC by porting their workstation applications to Windows NT, and are taking advantage of its faster performance. One of the driving forces behind Windows NT applications has been CAD/CAM, followed closely by a number of 3D design applications such as 3D Studio - and Softimage from Microsoft proved that a Silicon Graphics application running on a Windows NT workstation could be as compelling as its higher-end progenitor.

The success of Softimage and 3D Studio has led to a tremendous interest in design applications in the fields of entertainment authoring, VRML development for the Internet, animation, and 3D image processing. The information age is moving into a completely digital era, and 3D has come to symbolise the power of the digital image.

Interactive software developers are using 3D to increase the levels of interactivity in their products. Users, familiar with the kind of imagery that can be seen in Hollywood spectaculars such as Jurassic Park, are demanding higher quality 3D computer graphics in their multimedia and entertainment applications. Designers who have traditionally found workstations a costly barrier to their entry into the world of professional 3D are now finding a new breed of Windows NT workstations that offer them a cost effective entry point.

3D computer graphics are becoming the main images that we see in television, film, CD-ROM, computer software, and even print.

The PC offers an entry point for many manufacturers and software developers; however, there are shortcomings on the PC workstation. The fundamental problem with a Windows NT workstation is that the CPU is busy handling the needs of the operating system and application. In order to get better performance and increase the productivity of a professional 3D system, the graphics functions have to be accelerated by a separate processor. This is very similar to graphics workstations that have dedicated graphics subsystems for 3D applications. That is why Windows NT supports OpenGL, the 3D graphics standard developed by Silicon Graphics.

By adopting OpenGL, Microsoft allows high-end workstation applications to write to a familiar interface that can be used by hardware acceleration devices as well. Thus, OpenGL applications not only benefit from being easier to port between the various OpenGL platforms, but hardware accelerators can target OpenGL's 3D functions to dramatically improve an application's graphic performance. A group of products from our company, Diamond Multimedia's Fire GL family, is one of the leading lines of professional 3D graphics accelerators on the market today.

The Fire GL family not only accelerates OpenGL applications, but has optimised drivers for well-known products such as AutoCAD, Pro Engineer, Solidworks, Microstation, and 3D Studio. Furthermore, we have designed functionality that allows selected models of the Fire GL family of products to support dual screen operation. In professional 3D, the designer is often required to view models from a number of angles and work in both rendered and layout modes. By using two high- resolution screens the designer can dramatically increase the productivity benefits of a system and have access to more visual data at one sitting.

Many of the functions of OpenGL are handled so well on our board because of the Glint graphics processor from 3Dlabs. Rendering images to a high- resolution screen is a computation- intensive task. Data that exists in 3D must be converted into a 2D format and rendered to the screen. These boards not only speed up this process, but offloading the host CPU of such tasks makes it possible for a user to manipulate these rendered objects on screen, and in real time. Real time 3D increases the levels of interaction possible in an application. The result is a significant improvement in productivity and performance for professional 3D design.

Professional 3D, whether it be for CAD/CAM, animation, VRML designs, or entertainment authoring, is now more readily accessible to a wide range of designers. Specialist graphics cards constitute the key components of a highly productive system for professional 3D applications. The latest release of Windows NT 4.0 will also adopt many of the user interface features of the more widely used Windows 95. This means that more users will find it easier to work on Windows NT workstations than their Unix counterparts. The computer world is experiencing an upsurge in the use of professional 3D graphics products on the Windows NT platform.

As you might expect me to say, add a Fire GL graphics accelerator and you've got a powerful, cost-effective solution for professional 3D.

The Australian distributor for Diamond Multimedia is:

Chips & Bits

Tel (02) 9437 4077 Fax (02) 9437 4161

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