This one nearly fell through the cracks, but I caught word it of at Slashdot. A German university was showing a prototype at CeBit of a custom graphics chip designed for ray tracing rendering, generally considered a higher fidelity rendering technique than conventional real-time rendering. (Ray tracing calculates the paths of rays of light in a scene in order to achieve realistic shadowing and reflections.) The web site of the university that demonstrated the chip has a page that explains more about the chip, including the following claim:
This small prototype with only one rendering pipeline achieves already realtime frame rates of 15 to 60 fps in 512x384 and 32 bit colour depth and between 5 to 15 fps at 1024x768 in our benchmark scenes as presented on this page. Thus the prototype with on 90 MHz already achieves the performance of the highly optimized OpenRT software ray tracer on a (virtual) Pentium-4 with 8 to 12 GHz!The page includes sample images of ray-traced scenes using levels and artwork from games like Quake 3 and UT2003, and it notes that "all lights, shadows and reflections are calculated in real time and no lightmaps or environmental maps have been used." Of course.
There's also a PDF of a paper describing the hardware design. The paper concludes that "ray tracing is at least as well suited for hardware implementation as the ubiquitous rasterization approach." The authors claim that ray tracing cuts memory bandwidth requirements to "only a tiny fraction compared to rasterization," which could help scalability of graphics hardware, since current graphics cards are heavily memory bandwidth limited. They also argue that ray-tracing is better suited for complex scenes, and that it simplifies content creation.
All of this sounds wonderful, which may explain why other current research has focused on using today's programmable GPUs for ray tracing. Future GPUs may need to be modified in order to execute ray-tracing algorithms more optimally, though, from what I gather.
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