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Monday, July 16, 2001
ATI Announces SMARTSHADER Technology
2:01 PM | Michael Eilers | Comment on this story

In an aggressive move to achieve feature parity with rival NVIDIA, graphics chip and card maker ATI has announced the addition of SMARTSHADER technology to their next series of chips, which have yet to be released. As with their TruForm technology, this new rendering method is a combination of hardware capabilities and extensions to their drivers (as well as to the graphics APIs DirectX 8.1 and OpenGL). This technology will push real-time 3D rendering even further towards cinematic realism, allowing for complex surfaces and effects to be rendered on the fly for unprecedented visual quality.

NVIDIA wowed the gaming world with the Pixel and Vertex Shader abilities of the GeForce 3 card, which will allow such complex effects as rippled and bumped surfaces, layered textures, iridescent and reflective materials and layered lighting to create realistic scenes. In the long tradition of one-upsmanship between these graphics card giants, ATI has used the interval between NVIDIAs release to create a version of this technology which apparently takes it a step further, allowing for even more complex combinations of shaders, textures, surfaces and lights. Allowing for the combination of up to 6 textures per polygon and up to 22 separate texture instructions (which define how the textures themselves are layered and combined) per pixel, the SMARTSHADER technology certainly seems worthy of its all-caps moniker.

Although the white paper accompanying this announcement focuses on DirectX 8, a PC-only API, the document also promises that all the extensions for programming these new shaders will also be available through OpenGL, making this a cross-platform technology for Mac OS users as well.

The technology document outlining SMARTSHADER properties is loaded with lots of tech speak buzzwords; unfortunately as both NVIDIA and ATI have learned multiple times in the past, all the buzzwords in the world are meaningless if developers never choose to take advantage of these features. Hardware Transform, Clipping and Lighting is a technology well over two years old that developers are only now beginning to make aggressive use of when designing games and game engines. Regardless, here are some excerpts from the white paper with details on what you might expect of future titles which use this technology (if you purchase one of ATIs next-generation cards):

Procedural Deformation

Many objects in the real world change shape according to simple mathematical functions. These functions can be modeled using vertex shaders and applied to the position of each vertex in an object to create highly realistic, procedural animation. This has a wide range of applications including water waves, flags and capes that blow in the wind, and wobbling objects like soap bubbles.

Shadow Volumes

Shadows are a very important part of any scene, since they help convey a sense of depth and atmosphere. Vertex shaders provide a simple way of generating convincing shadows that can be fully animated and extended to multiple light sources. The shader is used to create transparent volumes that extend behind objects away from any light sources, creating shadows where the volumes contact other surfaces. The closer the light source is to the shadow-casting object, the darker the shadow is.

Single Pass, Per-Pixel Rendering of Multiple Light Sources

Some of the most important effects made possible by SMARTSHADER™ technology involves per-pixel lighting from multiple light sources. Making use of all six texture inputs to the pixel shaders, bumpy objects can be made to accurately reflect light from multiple sources in a single rendering pass. Light sources can include environment maps (providing realistic reflections), point lights, spotlights, glowing objects, and more.

Advanced Bump Mapping

Bump mapping has been demonstrated as a useful technique for improving the realism of surfaces without requiring a huge amount of additional geometry data. Both Environment Mapped Bump Mapping (which works best on shiny surfaces) and Dot Product 3 Bump Mapping (which works best on matte surfaces) can be implemented using pixel shader. ATI’s SMARTSHADER™ technology makes it possible to go a step further with more advanced bump mapping effects, such as self-shadowing bump maps (also known as Horizon Mapping) and the ability to combine multiple bump maps.

Procedural Textures

Detailed textures normally require large amounts of graphics memory for storage, which limits the variety of textures and amount of detail that can be used. However, with SMARTSHADER™ technology it has become possible to create a wide variety of interesting textures using mathematical functions, which require little or no memory storage because they are generated on the graphics chip.

Many of the features mention here (such as hardware-accelerated shadows and procedural textures) were only available on high-end graphics systems such as Silicon Graphics workstations for tens of thousands of dollars; the advent of these features in a $350-$500 card is an extremely exciting example of Moore's Law in action.

ATI's next chipset, which will presumably be a sequel to their quite successful Radeon series, is set to debut later this summer. As there has often been a lag between the PC and Mac versions of ATI cards, we might expect to be enjoying the fruits of the furious competition between NVIDIA and ATI some time this Fall. However, only time will tell when developers will actually implement technologies such as these in games and game engines and exploit the new chips to their full potential.

For more information and demonstrations of this new technology in action, jump to the ATI web site. The Flash-powered demo is particularly informative, though it requires patience or high bandwidth due to the large image sizes.

News: ATI Unveils TRUFORM Technology
ATI SMARTSHADER Details and Examples

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Archives  News  ATI Announces SMARTSHADER Technology