Monday, 3 January 2011

High-End 3D and the mass-market with AMD Fusion and Earthsim 2

I am a big proponent of the possibilities of high-end 3D on personal computers. That's why I created Earthsim, a product designed to show off the beauty of our Solar System using all the power of the latest high-end 3D graphics on a PC.

I always looked forward to the day when mainstream PC users could have access to Earthsim.

Choosing to use high-end 3D was a double-edged sword for us; on the one hand it lets us show off some great visuals, but on the other, it essentially limits Earthsim use to those people who would buy top-end graphics cards: PC hobbyists, and computer gamers.

I believe the arrival of AMD Fusion APUs is going to start changing this in a very exciting way. Putting serious 3D discrete-level GPU power on the same die as the CPU, to create what AMD are calling an APU, is a big big step forward in enabling a new generation of visual computing applications in the main-stream computing space.

Apart from graphics-intensive computing, the concept of an APU is a very significant step forward in plain floating point CPU power available to programmers (with Compute Shaders, programmers can harness the 3D portions of the APU for generalised processing tasks). This is somewhat similar to the step Intel made from 386 to 486 in bringing the floating point unit onto the CPU. But it's bigger than that, there is way more floating point power in a modern 3D core such as AMD Fusion than you could ever find in a traditional CPU's floating point unit.

I think AMD Fusion will affect the software available for consumers to use in two waves:

The first obvious wave goes out through 2011, as a powerful baseline in 3D performance rolls out to PCs. This will encourage software companies to consider adopting 3D graphics into their mainstream apps along with using richer 2D effects such as transitions/wipes/fades and animations. PC games studios will obviously be delighted by AMD Fusion, their target market will be increased, and in turn stabilised by the baseline in performance established by AMD Fusion APUs.

This is where AMD Fusion seriously affects us, as Earthsim will become accessible to the mainstream through 2011 via the consumer platform this technology establishes. Earthsim was always designed to be a cool experiential learning tool for everyone, not just gamers and hobbyists.

The second wave will be more subtle and connects with the massive amount of floating point power that becomes available through the Compute Shader. There are similarities here to what happened with Sony's PS3; it took programmers a while to get to grips with how they could best use the power under the hood in that box. Integrated Compute Shaders offer something even more flexible, but it will take a few years for programmers to get used to it. It’s such a new paradigm, especially outside of the games industry.

For me, for both the above reasons, AMD Fusion is one of the biggest steps forward in computing I have seen, and one I have waited a long time for. I am excited to see what comes out of this direction in the coming years. You can go to the main AMD Fusion site for more tec info and you can see the AMD press release here. I also found a good post from Microsoft here

With all this in mind at Earthsim, we decided to take time out of our release schedule to optimise the Universe browser for AMD Fusion. We have now moved all the code over to DX11 and are beginning to find more ways we can use the Compute Shaders to further accelerate our code. The Beta 1 update we make this January is going to contain all the latest performance improvements from this work and we intend to continue further work in this direction over the coming months.

Going forward to Earthsim Beta 2, I am excited to play with Compute Shader usage in our real-time procedural planet generator. In Beta 2 we will be using this planet generator to showcase all the newly discovered exoplanets. I will post some videos of this work here as soon as things start looking good enough.


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