James McCombe on ray tracing & the gaming industry

As E3 kicks off in Los Angeles to showcase the latest and greatest in games and gaming hardware, it's worth considering where the industry is headed in the years to come. While the current generation of PlayStation, Xbox and PC games depend on rasterization to generate graphics and gameplay, there is growing interest in how advances in ray tracing technology will impact the gaming world. Ray tracing can deliver photorealistic graphics, but the processing requirements are so great that applications have mostly been limited to special effects seen in Hollywood films and television advertisements. The Industry Standard recently sat down with James A. McCombe, the CTO and co-founder of Caustic Graphics, to discuss his company's new ray tracing products -- the CausticOne graphics accelerator card and CausticGL software API. In the near term, McCombe said Caustic's platform will profoundly change the way graphics professionals preview and render scenes and effects. Long term, the former Apple engineer believes the gaming industry may benefit as well. The following is an excerpt from the interview.

James A. McCombe: Ultimately, the vision behind this is that today for professional graphics use for offline rendering, people that work in that space already understand the benefits of ray tracing. [They] use it on a regular basis and build their whole workflows around the assumption that ray tracing takes an incredibly long period of time. And they're used to that.

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When they want to do rapid previews, they don't use ray tracing. They use rasterization. They tend to build preview tools around the GPU. Of course, it means that there's a tremendous visual gap between what they get when they preview, and what they ultimately get when they submit their work to a render farm or to a large computer, to wait a long time to get the results out.

Then you've got gaming. There is no ray tracing in gaming. Intel talks about it, but there is no game out there today that uses ray tracing. There's nothing out there that's even close to being able to bring truly fully ray traced [technology] to end the gap.

Our vision is [to solve] the fundamental problem of ray tracing, which is 'how do you take advantage massively parallel stream processors, to be able to bring to bear all that computing to solve the ray tracing problem and to be able to create a straightforward and standardized programming interface to allow people to migrate their existing game engines or rendering engines over to use ray tracing?'

Our vision is in that four or five years' time, the same fundamental underlying technologies will be used for both production rendering needs and for game rendering needs. The only difference will be that for games, they may not catch quite so many rays, because they need to maintain interactivity, whereas for production rendering, they'll need to cast thousands of rays for every pixel, because they're trying to create absolute beauty that's going to be on the cinema screen.

Ultimately, our vision is that the same technology, the same shaders, the same rendering techniques are being used in both. That's not technically possible today.

Industry Standard: This is where you are taking your technology, or ...?

McCombe: We see no reason this would be in a game console eventually, it's just a matter of silicon integration with existing screen processors.

Knowing that we've solved these problems, I think the real challenge at this point is a business challenge and a market challenge of trying to break the Catch 22 that game developers won't write for a platform that doesn't have acceptance, and isn't integrated into commodity hardware. And commodity hardware vendors might be hesitant to integrate a piece of custom silicon into the hardware when there isn't content working for it.

Industry Standard: That's a pretty big nut to crack.

McCombe: We have a solution for that. We have this small little thing called the 3D professional market, which already places a tremendously high value on ray tracing and is willing to pay for it. And out solution right now without being integrated into a stream processor [or] a separate chip, is it's still able to provide tremendous orders of magnitude speed gain to that market, and they're willing to pay for that.

And it's our belief that if we can be successful in the 3d professional market and show that we can massively accelerate ray tracing for offline rendering, and we can offer interactive ray tracing for artistic preview while they're working, that because we're able to be successful in that space, this allows that technology to gradually trickle down to the consumer space to be used in games when the market is ready for it.

This story, "James McCombe on ray tracing & the gaming industry" was originally published by The Industry Standard.