Immediate Mode Rendering: the status quo

Imagination Technology has been in the tile based rendering market for quite some time. Sold under the PowerVR chip name, the first true tile based rendering system that Imagination created was the PowerVR Series 2 chip. The PowerVR Series 2 marked a significant deviation from the traditional immediate mode rendering which has been the mainstay of 3D graphics for over 40 years.

In immediate mode rendering, a video card is programed to render each polygon in a scene without any knowledge of what lies in the scene as a whole. Taking 4 sets of coordinates (x, y, z, and a color value), every forward facing polygon in a scene must be rendered, shaded, and textured. A z-buffer then checks the forward (z) location of the current polygon against every other polygon in the scene. If the z-value of the current polygon is greater than the z-value of the polygons stored in the z-buffer, the current polygon is stored in the frame buffer. If the z-buffer determines that the polygon is actually behind another polygon, the fully shaded and textured polygon that is not visible is thrown out.

Since the check against the z-buffer occurs after the pixel is already shaded and textured, many pixels that will never be visible in the final scene are fully rendered, shaded and textured only to be thrown out. This process, which results in many pixels being processed that will never be seen or used, is called overdraw, and occurs in nearly every scene rendered on an immediate mode renderer. Typical estimates place the current overdraw in many 3D games today at anywhere from 2 to 4, with an average around 3. This means that on average 2 pixels are actually rendered and then thrown out, with only the topmost pixel being displayed on screen.

As you can imagine, this form of rendering is extremely inefficient. Since fully shaded and textured pixels are thrown out, a good portion of the work an immediate mode rendering video card performs is actually in vain, as the pixels will never see the light of day. It is a direct result of this that current video cards are suffering memory bandwidth limitations, as the data for pixels that will never be used have to travel over the already busy memory bus.

Index Tile Based Rendering: PowerVR's Solution
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  • MonkeyPaw - Monday, February 24, 2014 - link

    Thanks for the stroll down memory lane (by keeping the article up). I had one of these cards back in 2002, and it was one I looked back upon fondly. I can't remember most of the GPUs I owned from yesteryear, save the Voodoo 3 and the crappy S3 Verge. That's fairly elite company, at least in my brain, anyway. :)
  • xrror - Monday, March 2, 2015 - link

    Yea, it's sad that there wasn't any further development of the Kyro series in the PC market. If I remember right (probably needs fact checked) Imagination's development resources got sucked into the Sega Dreamcast after this point. Even that wouldn't have been so bad if Sega hadn't just given up on the Dreamcast so early on due to a "poor showing in Japan" (nevermind everyone loved it in the US but we didn't count apparently, also see Genesis/MegaDrive).

    I think Imagination or at least their tech lives on in the embedded/mobile space now, but meh - really wanted to see what they could have done with their tech without being shackled to a power budget in 2002-2005 era PC's.
  • Alexvrb - Wednesday, October 14, 2020 - link

    You're wrong. The Dreamcast was designed years earlier using PowerVR Series 2. The later "Kyro series" was based on Series 3. The DC design win netted them some much needed cash which they used to fuel their Series 3 releases. What killed imgtech was their inability to play well with others (board partners) and issues staying on schedule for releases. If they had managed to get the 4800 out the door sooner, and released the larger Kyro III with DDR it would have bought them some time. Especially if they had paired it with a hardware T&L block like Elan.
  • thegreatjombi - Wednesday, August 12, 2015 - link

    Its very interesting to think that Imagination Technologies could have been another foot note in history (3dfx, bitboys Oy! Rendition..) but going mobile and refining their technology has allowed them to basically become more popular than ATI(AMD) or Nvidia. There are probably more devices in peoples houses running a powervr variant than have an AMD or Nvidia GPU.

    I do wish someone would stick their chip on a discrete card again, they apparently support full Directx and OpenGL! could be an interesting low profile, low end, low power, fanless card for HTPCs.

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