While industry response to Euclideon's demonstration of so-called 'Unlimited Detail' rendering has been somewhat sceptical, its founder believes he's on to something big. We chat to Bruce Robert Dell to find out what's what.
Euclideon made headlines throughout the world when it published a demonstration of a technology it claimed could revolutionise the world of gaming, adding previously unheard-of levels of detail to in-game worlds and objects. When the demo wasn't followed up with a software release, people started to cry foul, and when the company went silent people declared it a hoax or a scam.
Asked why his company dropped from the public eye and refused to address questions following the original push for publicity, Dell claimed that it was a result of not wanting to over-promise. "There was so much work to do with such a small team," he told thinq_ during our interview. "We didn't want to show things that aren't finished, and a lot of people were wanting to use it before it was finished."
A year on, Dell's company has broken its silence with a new video demo showcasing an impressively detailed world: a kilometre-square island which features objects as small as individual grains of dirt, each incredibly detailed and some of which have even been scanned from real-world objects.
"We've been taking my original little demos and tests that show very alternative forms of technology," Dell explained of the 'missing' year, "and our team here adds or takes from that. With our combined skill we have some really nice things were making, not just in terms of graphics but also in 3D memory compaction and other areas."
Dell's background in 3D rendering technology comes, not as a professional but as a hobbyist. "Whilst I have every respect for university," he joked, "unfortunately I never went. I was inventing 3D in a totally different direction - as my hobby. I was very disconnected from the outside world of computer graphics, and as the years went by I got further and further from the ways people say graphics are supposed to be done.
"At first what I was making wasn’t very good," Dell admitted, "and I think some people would have said 'time to give up' many times. But I am blessed with stubbornness and the ability to ignore people who try to discourage me , so little by little I overcame problems that kept things slow. I often had to get rid of and rewrite whole sections of the system, but eventually I started to realise I was doing things that other systems couldn't do.
"In time it was no longer a system that was lagging behind what I saw in games, instead it was in front. It just kept getting better and eventually it ended up where it is today."
And today, the technology has been used to render an impossibly complex island in a detail that is simply not possible with standard rendering techniques. "If you have a graphics background, then what we say must sound impossible," Dell admitted. That's certainly been the reaction of many in the games industry.
Markus 'Notch' Persson is an indie game developer best known for creating the hit game Minecraft, which uses a novel rendering technique known as 'voxels' to create its destructible terrain. Voxels - short for 'volumetric pixels - are pixels which are mapped in a 3D world, rather than 2D, and represent the heart, he claims, of what Dell is trying to do.
"It's a scam," he writes on his blog. "They made a voxel renderer, probably based on sparse voxel octrees." To back up his claims that the video demo is hiding a few key facts, Notch calculates that the island in the video at the complexity Dell claims would be made of 512,000,000,000,000,000 '3D atoms,' an amount of data which would require at least 170,000 3TB hard drives to store.
"So obviously, it's not made up of that many unique voxels," he writes, pointing out that all of the objects and terrain are incredibly repetitive. "It’s a very pretty and very impressive piece of technology, but they’re carefully avoiding to mention any of the drawbacks, and they’re pretending like what they’re doing is something new and impressive. In reality, it’s been done several times before." The drawbacks mentioned by Notch include such things as animation, which is difficult to achieve with voxel-based rendering and is not demonstrated in the video.
Dell denies such claims. "This is probably terribly arrogant, but I always take disbelief as a compliment. Unlimited Detail isn't a ray trace system, it's not a splat system, it's not a voxel renderer," he claimed. "It's a very different technique. There’s an easy way to understand it: it's a new type of three-dimensional search algorithm, just like Google or Yahoo is a search algorithm.
"Let’s say we went to the library and we were looking for the book Snow White. At present, a lot of 3D atom systems work in a way in which all the books in the library are scattered all over the floor, and you have to go through each and every one of them until you find Snow White. If there were a billion books in the library, you would have to go through them one at a time - and that would take a very long time.
"However, let’s say you went to the library and all the books were on the shelves. Then I would look for the ‘S’ section, then the ‘SN’ section and then the ‘SNO’ section - and it would only be about half a dozen jumps before I reached Snow White. This is the basis of how search algorithms work, and with it we find one atom for each pixel on the screen."
Dell claims that his '3D search' technology can work around the issues of data storage raised by Notch. "If we were making our world out of little tiny atoms and had to store x, y, z, colour, etc. for each atom, then yes it would certainly use up a lot of memory. But instead we’ve found another way of doing it. I could say we use less memory than the current polygon system uses, but if I did that I think I’d exceeded my quota of unbelievable claims for the day - so well leave that for future demonstrations," he joked.
The technology could also prove a game-changer for 3D acceleration hardware, which currently focuses on polygon performance. "At the moment we’re running everything very well in software alone," Dell explained, "however, we're a greedy bunch, and seeing as more power is available in the GPU why not use it? I’m sure in time we will make more use of that."
Should Dell's claims for the capabilities of his technology - which, he readily admits, seem impossible - stick, the next trick will be convincing developers to abandon years of work creating polygon-based engines to implement his Unlimited Detail system. While the company is working on tools for converting polygonal models created in software such as 3D Studio Max and Maya to Unlimited Detail point clouds, it's still going to be an uphill struggle.
Asked about the level of interest he has received, Dell clammed up. "I do not want to comment regarding our relationships with developers or publishers," he explained. "I'll let them discuss their relationship to us when they're ready.
"Regarding why they would make a swap: unlimited converted polygons, better graphics, the ability to scan in objects from the real world, no more making objects many times at different distances, porting graphics between different spec platforms without rebuilding them all - if you were a developer, wouldn't you swap?"
While the nine-person team behind Euclideon is small, Dell claims that it's well funded and will be able to see the technology through its conceptual stages to a commercial product.
"Our investors were smart people who used to run one of Australia's largest software companies," he explained, without naming names. "They investigated the technology and the real-time demos and decided to give us funding. After that we were fortunate enough to get one of the largest government grants in the country, and have been working hard ever since."
Although the industry response is still extremely sceptical - Doom creator John Carmack suggested that any implementation would require far more powerful hardware than currently exists, a claim which Dell claims is "incorrect, but understandable in light of the graphics systems he is aware of" - Dell seems confident that his approach will win the skeptics over.
Sadly, a release date for the software development kit is still being kept under wraps.