and Viz: If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them
by Forrester Cole
15 August 2001
Apparently there are a lot of bitter people
in the scientific visualization community these days. A good number
of them showed up to the panel on computer games and visualization
today. The topic of the panel was the relationship between the computer
gaming and visualization industries, as gaming has taken over the
leadership role in graphics features and hardware. The panel was
organized by Theresa-Marie Rhyne of North Carolina State University,
and included Peter K. Doenges of Evans & Sutherland, Chris Hecker
of definition six, inc., William Hibbard of the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
Hanspeter Pfister of Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratory, and
Nate Robins of Avalanche Software.
While games have provoked higher and higher performance
in PC and console graphics hardware, the high-end visualization
market has been left behind. Chips designed for gaming often do
not have the features that visualization requires, such as high
precision framebuffers or floating point math throughout. Gaming
oriented chips also tend to have a large number of unintentional
"features" that visualization would rather do without.
This situation leaves the visualization industry with a dilemma:
sacrifice features to use the cheap, fast, gaming oriented processors,
or stick to the more feature-rich, but slower and far more expensive
SGI and similar machines. Doenges and Hibbard gave good overviews
of the problem from the visualization side. Doenges advocated that
the visualization industry become more active in getting its needs
heard by the hardware companies such as ATI and NVIDIA. Hibbard
acknowledged that visualization and gaming do have different needs,
but claimed that given a few years the hardware manufacturers will
integrate the high-end visualization features anyway.
Hanspeter Pfister painted a much less rosy picture.
After acknowledging the obvious good points about the PC graphics
chips, he dived straight into their deficiencies. Not only are the
graphics chips buggy and optimized for Quake, not visualization,
in their drive to one-up the competition the hardware vendors are
polluting OpenGL and DirectX with specific, unportable extensions.
All this is happening because the gaming industry wants more frames
per second. The visualization industry is paying the price for the
gaming industry's short-sightedness.
The game programmers were not going to take that
in silence. Hecker put the blame for bugs and API hacks on the hardware
manufacturers. He claimed that the hardware manufacturers do not
listen to the game makers either, and have such long lead times
that they could not integrate advice into their next chip even if
they were inclined to. Game programmers also want to see good, general
APIs. The solution to the argument seemed to be to offload all the
blame for the current mess onto NVIDIA and ATI, with a side helping
A long question and answer session followed the
presentations. Some discussion centered on the observed historical
cycle from hardware to software rendering and back again, as the
needs and complexity of graphics grew. An audience member, supported
by Pfister, suggested that all the problems may be solved by a future
fast CPU that would make a GPU unnecessary. Hecker and Doenges countered
that even if Moore's Law continued for the next twenty years, CPUs
would still not be fast enough to generally solve all rendering
problems, leaving room for GPUs in the foreseeable future.
SIGGRAPH 2001 Computer Games and Viz page.