ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT: Calling a Spade a Spadeby Derek Wilson on May 14, 2007 12:04 PM EST
- Posted in
Tessellation and the Future
It's no secret that R600 is AMD's second generation unified shader architecture. The Xbox 360 houses their first attempt at a unified architecture, and the R600 evolved from this. It isn't surprising to learn that some of the non-traditional hardware from the Xenos (the Xbox 360 GPU) found its way into R600.
AMD has included a tessellator on their hardware, which is able to take input geometry and amplify it before passing it on to the vertex shader. This is something that Microsoft is planning on adding to future versions of DirectX as well, but in the meantime developers will need to take special steps to utilize the hardware.
The basic idea behind tessellation is in the subdivision of geometry. There are multiple algorithms for handling this process, and the R600 tessellator is capable of adapting to a developer's specific needs. The tessellator can take a polygon as input and break it up into smaller triangles, creating more vertices for a specific object. Taken on its own, this isn't particularly useful, but this concept can be paired with displacement mapping in order to reshape the tessellated polygon into something more like the actual surface a developer wants to represent (this is called the limit surface).
With low polygon models and lots of pixel shaders, normal maps and textures can approximate the look of more complex geometry, but we're always stuck with the very rough silhouette edge around the object. With more geometry, we could also better use pixel shaders to enhance the geometry present rather than trying to create the illusion of geometry itself.
We can't simply send millions of polygons per character to the graphics card. This isn't because the card can't handle the processing requirements, but rather the bandwidth and latency overhead of sending all this data to the hardware is too high. Tessellation and displacement gives us a way of really using the vertex shading power of unified architectures as well as removing the limitation on polygon count created by overhead.
While geometry shaders can be used for amplification and tessellators can be written as geometry shaders, this process is still way too slow on current programmable hardware. AMD's dedicated tessellator is capable of tessellating up to 15x more data and it can work much faster and more efficiently than a geometry shader set to the same task. With the next version of DX bringing tessellator hardware to all GPUs, developers should be able to focus on more interesting uses for the geometry shader as well.
Having this unit makes porting Xbox 360 games even easier for developers targeting AMD hardware. As most hardware still doesn't support the feature, a more general purpose path will still have to be written, but there wouldn't be any reason to remove what's already there. In these cases, R600 could benefit with greater performance than other hardware.
The downside is that it might be difficult to entice developers not already working with the Xbox 360 to touch the tessellator. It is definitely capable of high performance and terrific detail, but spending time on a feature only a small subset of gamers will be able to experience (for this generation) takes away from time spent making the game better for everyone.
We are always happy to see either hardware or software take a leap and create the first chicken or egg, but we just don't see the tessellator as a big selling point of R600. The technology is great, we're glad it's there, but we will really have to wait and see just how much (if any) real value this adds to the product. We'll leave this section on one final note about a tessellator landscape demo that really brings home what this thing can do.