A small Australian company of just nine people claims to be on the verge of a breakthrough in computer graphics that will result in games many thousands of times more complex than has ever been possible before, by completely rethinking how geometry works.
Traditional real-time 3D rendering uses polygons to create in-game objects, and typical increases in polygon count - with more polygons leading to more complex, detailed, and realistic in-game objects and surfaces - occur at a rate of around 25 per cent each year.
Sadly, adding more polygons to a system increases its complexity, making graphics hardware work harder to render a scene and preventing games designers from simply shoving a few billion polygons into an object in order to create a realistic level of detail. Tricks like tessellation - which increases at runtime the number of visible polygons by 'interpolating' new ones based on a low-polygon model - have been introduced, but that limit is still holding games back.
Several 'solutions' to the issue of polygonal overhead have been created and discarded over the years. Perhaps the most interesting was 'voxel' technology - short for 'volumetric pixel' - which replaced polygons with 3D pixels. Used to great effect in sadly overlooked sci-fi epic Outcast, voxels allowed for a far greater level of complexity than was possible with polygon-based rendering at the time, but at the cost of a lower resolution and a 'fuzziness' to the graphics.
While voxel rendering hasn't disappeared - the technology sees frequent use in scientific visualisation systems, and popular indie hit Minecraft uses voxels to create its destructible terrain - it's fair to say that, in the mainstream, it has failed to make a splash.
Australian start-up Euclideon aims to succeed where voxels failed with an 'unlimited detail' rendering engine that it claims increases the level of detail available in-game by around 100,000 times. First demonstrated in 2010, the company's promised technology was given up as vapourware when a product failed to materialise.
"We got a lot of attention because we made the claim that we could run unlimited 'little 3D atoms' in real time," company chief Bruce Robert Dell explains in a status update video. "If what we've said is true, then it is the largest breakthrough since 3D graphics began.
"Two months after announcing this we declined all further interviews and then completely disappeared," Dell jokes. "Most people said the technology was too unbelievable and was probably never real to begin with."
Dell is hoping that this latest video - the first anyone has heard from the company in around a year - will help to dispel that feeling with is presented as a real-time demo of the company's technology running in software at around 20 frames per second.
The Euclideon rendering system works in a similar way to voxels: rather than flat polygonal surfaces, objects are rendered using a cloud of points in 3D space. These clouds allow for more detail and more realistic objects, but typically come at a major cost to performance. That's something which Euclideon's technology aims to address.
"We've made a little island," Dell explains in the video. "The island is 1 kilometre squared. This island is made from 21,062,352,435,000 polygons."
That's a staggering number of polygons, but what the company's technology does next seems beyond belief: it takes those polygons and converts them to 'Unlimited Detail' point cloud data at a rate of 64 'atoms' per cubic millimetre or one million per cubic inch. That's a level of complexity so high, Dell is able to demonstrate individual grains of dirt making up the ground's surface.
"There are 15 million converted polygons in every square meter of dirt," Dell claims, "which means that in one cubic meter of dirt we have more polygons than you will find in any game that doesn't use procedural generation."
That level of complexity is staggering, but it's no good if game designers can't get to grips with it. As the company has yet to release any software, it's impossible to say how difficult the Euclideon engine would be to implement. Dell has an answer for that, too: a tool which converts polygons to point cloud data.
"Our polygon converter converts things straight from 3DS Max, Maya, and other 3D programs, so it's pretty much business as usual for the artist," Dell claims. "He just has total freedom now, and has no such thing as a polygon budget," he adds, referring to the level of complexity an artist is 'allowed' before the resulting object would impact game performance.
The relative complexity of an 'Unlimited Detail' model compared to a polygonal model also allows for 3D scanning techniques to be used to reproduce real-world objects in-game. Dell demonstrates this with a rock that has been scanned and placed in-game, looking significantly more realistic than you would expect from a real-time rendering engine.
Performance is going to be key for Euclideon's technology: while the current demo looks a little jerky, running as it does at 20 frames per second in software, Dell claims that versions running significantly faster are available but not quite ready for public display.
With Dell promising a software development kit "some months from now," the games industry could be about to receive its biggest shake-up since 3D accelerators were developed, or its biggest disappointment since Duke Nukem Forever finally launched.
To judge the technology for yourself, Dell's update video is reproduced below.