3Dfx unveils new 3D graphics tech

PC graphics chip and board maker 3Dfx Interactive Inc. will announce on Monday details of a new graphics technology that will smooth out the flaws in today's 3D images.

"We want to close the gap between digital Hollywood effects and the PC," said Scott Sellers, co-founder and chief technology officer of the San Jose, Califoria company.

Known as the T-buffer, the new hardware technology allows effects such as anti-aliasing (for smoothing the jagged look of 3D images), motion blurring (emulating the effect of movement too fast for the "camera") and depth of field blur (foreground appears in focus while background does not). "We are all about doing the Myst-like special effects in real time," said Sellers. The technology will find its way into a product coming out this fall, said the technology exec.

Perhaps the most useful part of the technology is its ability to fix "aliasing" -- a side effect of fixed-resolution monitors that causes steps to appear along straight lines. Anti-aliasing has always been a Holy Grail within the graphics industry. In fact, many graphics board makers attempt to smooth out images in software -- slowing a game's action to a crawl. "The anti-aliasing feature is certainly the most interesting, and immediately the most useful," said Peter Glaskowsky, graphics guru at chip technology watcher MicroDesign Resources Inc. "It does something that we need in 3D graphics -- that is, smoother anti-aliased lines."

The T-buffer technology combines multiple images -- currently four -- that are kept in memory to generate a smoother final image that appears on the computer screen. The best part: It works automatically with no fixes or patching on the part of the software developer. Two other applications of the technology -- motion blurring and focal-point blurring -- are less of a slam-dunk for the game industry, said Glaskowsky.

Motion blurring approximates what happens when a camera tries to capture a fast movement, while focal point blurring lets game producers or the player focus on a particular object or distance. Unfortunately, the effects that can be generated by the 3dfx card are only rough approximations, and don't always look good, said Glaskowsky. "They don't really mimic the behaviour of those effects," he said. "The motion blur creates to me what -- in some of their demos -- was visually objectionable because the object seems to be skittering or skipping across the screen."

By announcing the technology, the company hopes to get consumers and developers interested in the potential of the new effects. "(Graphics are) getting more and more complicated every year," said Sellers. "This announcement is a way to educate the consumers." He added that company officials explained the technology in meetings with game developers at the Game Developers Conference in March.

Despite the questions regarding the usefulness of the other applications of T-buffering, its ability to remove jagged lines from an image will be what sells cards with the new technology. And MDR's Glaskowksy believes creative software developers will find innovative uses for the T-buffering hardware. "I think there is also a really good chance that application developers will figure out other ways to use the T-buffer that 3Dfx hasn't even thought about yet and produce other kinds of special effects that will be very useful," he said. "And that, I think, is perhaps its biggest potential."

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