Every so often I get asked about what caused me to be interested in GPUs, and consequently how I ended up at AnandTech. The answer to either of those is something of a long story that I rarely go into, but in short it has a lot to do with the history of PC graphics itself, and in particular a very important and very historical piece of software: Second Reality. Consequently with today being the 20th birthday of Second Reality, I wanted to take a moment to wish its developers a happy birthday, and reminisce a bit on one of the most significant pieces of software in the history of PC graphics.

Without rehashing what Wikipedia does better, Second Reality holds a very important place in the annals of the PC graphics industry. The PC was not always the graphics powerhouse it was today, and for many years in the 1980s and up to the early-to-mid 1990s that honor went to the much more graphically capable Commodore Amiga platform. But like the rest of the PC industry in general, the early 90s was a period of rapid improvement and PC graphics was no exception. Second Reality, a demoscene demo, holds the distinction of being one of the pieces of software that changed how the world viewed PCs, and in many ways marks the beginning of the PC being a serious platform for consumer graphics.

So what is Second Reality? In a nutshell, it’s a compilation of code, graphics, art, and music. But it’s probably more meaningful to say that before “can it play Crysis?” was a thing, it was “can it run Second Reality?” Even more so than Crysis in 2007, in 1993 Second Reality greatly pushed the envelope for what could be done with PC graphics. Developed by the Finnish group The Future Crew, Second Reality pulled off effects previously only seen on the Amiga, demonstrated other effects that the Amiga couldn’t replicate, and demonstrated real time 3D years before consumer video cards gained 3D capabilities.

Graphically it was impressive, and a lot of that impressiveness had to do with just how clever its various graphics hacks were. Real time raytracing, voxels, mesh deformation, plasma effects, vector balls, and of course 3D were all used to great effect in Second Reality, and all of which ran in software on a lowly 486. It was quite frankly the most graphically impressive thing you would see on a PC in 1993. And it ultimately set the stage for the PC to become the graphics powerhouse that it became later in the 1990s and beyond.

YouTube doesn’t really do Second Reality justice, but as it used a mix of 60Hz and 70Hz effects and non-square pixels it’s difficult to capture to video (hey, it was 1993)

The developers of Second Reality ultimately went on to form various companies, most of which our long-time readers can recall. Remedy (Max Payne), Futuremark (benchmarks), and BitBoys Oy (graphics hardware, now owned by Qualcomm) can all trace their roots to the individuals responsible for Second Reality. As important as Second Reality was to proving the PC as a graphics powerhouse, it in some ways also laid the groundwork for future graphical advancements, which we continue to see the repercussions of today.

As for myself? Well let’s just say that it’s hard not to be interested in 3D graphics after seeing Second Reality running at the local white box computer store. It sold computers, but to a fledgling nerd it also offered a glimpse of what could be done with real time PC graphics, forming a fascination that has lived on since.

Ultimately we have of course long since surpassed what Second Reality can do. But even at 20 years old it still holds a very special place in the history of PC graphics, offering a watershed moment that has rarely been replicated since.

Update: As part of the birthday festivities, former Future Crew member Jussi Laakkonen (Abyss) has announced that the source code for Second Reality is finally being released today. The code has never previously been released, despite previous interest in it, so this will be the first chance for most old school hackers to see just what kind of clever tricks and hacks went into making Second Reality. The source code is available on GitHub.



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  • Wolfpup - Thursday, August 01, 2013 - link

    I really appreciate this being shared. I have to say I somehow missed it.

    I'm not sure though...is this actually impressive for 1993? Nothing here looks better than what a SNES can do with an FX chip (and mostly worse). I saw better stuff on SegaCD around this period too. Doom looked better to me. Hmm...maybe I'm just mixing things up a bit since the PSX, Duke 3D, Quake etc. are so close in time to this, but still I don't THINK this would have blown me away back then?

    Actually Jurassic Park on the SNES without any upgrade chip is more impressive to me, soooo I don't know.
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, August 01, 2013 - link

    The SNES SuperFX chip was quite an interesting beast, but it still would have come up short running Second Reality. The 3D in SR is more advanced both in terms of the number of polygons and in the shading, since Gouraud shading is used in places. The real time raytracing and voxels are also unlike anything else. Though the SNES (even without SuperFX) could pull off some of the rotozoom effects with its sprite capabilities.

    As for other PC elements, this would have predated any of them. Doom didn't hit until December, and while it was John Carmack clever in its own ways it of course wasn't a multi-faceted technical demo like this.

    I think that had you seen this in August of 1993, you would have been blown away.=)
  • Arbee - Friday, August 02, 2013 - link

    SNES could rotozoom one background; sprites could not be scaled or rotated. Yoshi's Island required the SuperFX2 simply to scale and rotate the sprites. Reply
  • Arbee - Friday, August 02, 2013 - link

    Yes, yes, a million times yes. This was *huge* on PCs in 1993. Amiga partisans at Assembly 93 were alleged to be openly weeping after this played. (That may be exaggerated).

    And it's not just the quality of the technical trickery, it's how everything flows together and syncs with the music just right. The demoscene didn't get that good again until 2007's LifeForce, by the Greek group ASD. (Unlike SR, LifeForce will run on any modern PC - it was coded on a GeForce 5900 and so even low-end recent cards will play it at full framerate).
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, August 02, 2013 - link

    "The demoscene didn't get that good again until 2007's LifeForce, by the Greek group ASD"

    Oh I don't know. I'd consider 2005's Iconoclast to be a modern classic; in fact I'd put it ahead of Lifeforce.
  • GTForce - Thursday, August 01, 2013 - link

    What a timing! Just last Tuesday, I posted to our Facebook group of friends, who are all around 40 years old, that it's been 20 years since we watched this Demo, drooling. To this day, I still crave watching it every so often. Exquisite piece of work. Reply
  • GTForce - Thursday, August 01, 2013 - link

    As for YouTube not doing justice to the demo, these guys went out of their way to do their best:


    I have the first one of the series, which contains Second Reality, as well as Unreal which was the prelude from The Future Crew to Second Reality.
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, August 01, 2013 - link

    Speaking of Mindcandy, I didn't want to link it in the article and give Trixter an unexpected crush on his FTP server, but he did put together an even better capture of Second Reality that was intended for Blu-Ray.

    SecondRealityHD.ts was captured in 720p with aspect ratio correction (for 320x200 and other non-square resolutions) and is based on a slightly modified version of Second Reality that retimes the 70Hz sections to 60Hz. It's by far the definitive capture of Second Reality, though because YouTube doesn't do 60fps it gets mauled just like any other upload.
  • uop - Thursday, August 01, 2013 - link

    I am not an atomic playboy! Reply
  • enkov - Friday, August 02, 2013 - link

    I have found this video - Making of the Second reality


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