"With the Caustic Visualizer and hardware cards this is the first time I have been able to model and ray trace simultaneously…I can see true refractions and reflections as I design. The quality, speed and fidelity really blow me away and frees us up to iterate at will, making product design perfectly interactive."
-Max Sims, president of Technolution
One of the most interesting developments in 3D rendering technology over the last few years has been an industry-wide effort to create a "real-time" viewport in 3D applications like Maya and 3ds Max. Traditionally, 3D artists and designers have been forced to run many test renders in order to see what their work looks like in its final rendered state. This is because their 3D application viewport doesn't fully render shadows, lighting and reflections in real-time.
Now, if it were possible for an artist to have a fully ray-traced viewport that would show any adjustments they might make to lighting as they make the changes, the resulting real time viewport not only would save time, but the creative process would be smoother as well. And although many industry leading 3D software companies have implemented faster viewport rendering, no one has been able to produce a fully ray-traced viewport that gives the artist nearly instant feedback on lighting, shaders and reflections.
That is, until Caustic's Visualizer plug-in for Maya and their (just released) Series2 ray-tracing accelerator cards.
Caustic Professional has been developing ways to improve 3D rendering so that artists and designers are free to create, rather than sit and wait. Caustic, now a part of Imagination Technologies, itself a major innovator in the computer graphics field, announced the Caustic Visualizer for Maya during last year's SIGGRAPH 2012 conference, and released it at Autodesk University. The application adds an interactive ray-traced mode to Maya's viewports which produces accurate soft shadows, diffuse reflections, translucency, bounced light and more - all in real-time.
I was fortunate to meet with Caustic at SIGGRAPH last year and got a full demonstration of this remarkable application. Once you see the Visualizer for Maya on a live machine, it becomes immediately apparent that anyone using the application will gain valuable time by not having to run multiple test-renders in order to check shadows, reflections and lighting before final rendering. Visualizer for Maya provides immediate feedback in all of these areas, both on Maya's native renderer and on Mental Ray.
Here are some of the main benefits of the Visualizer for Maya
Based on Caustic's PowerVR OpenRL SDK, Visualizer for Maya is available for a 30-day free evaluation and is fully functional. Caustic Visualizer currently supports Autodesk Maya 2012 x64 SP2, Autodesk Maya 2013 x64 SP2 and Autodesk Maya, 2013 Extension x64 and Autodesk Maya 2014 on Windows 7 and Windows 8. A data-sheet is available for Visualizer for Maya here and at the beautifully designed Caustic Visualizer website, including several video tutorials. There's also a complete FAQ you can access here.
At present, the Visualizer plug in is available primarily for Maya, but a version of the Visualizer is in beta for 3DS Max and will be released sometime this summer. Based on Imagination's PowerVR OpenRL, the SDK (software development kit) is available free for interested developers. The price of the Visualizer for Maya plug-in is currently $99 and can be ordered directly from the Caustic.com website store. There's also a demo that is free to try for 30 days.
Want to super-size that Visualizer for Maya plug-in? Caustic Professional has got you covered with the world's first discrete ray-tracing accelerator cards: the Series2 R2500 and the R2100.
Easily fitting into a standard PCI-E slot on a PC motherboard, the cards are basically built for two different types of PC hardware: the dual-processor set up (the R2500) and the single-processor set up (the R2100). I was sent the R2100 card by Caustic, so that's what I'll be reviewing here.
It seems obvious that real time ray-traced viewports in Maya are exactly what is needed for increasing productivity and creativity for 3D artists, but how does the hardware actually work?
Each Caustic Series2 card takes control of how the ray tracing is handled system-wide. The shading of objects in 3D scene is handled by the CPU, the system memory takes care of the textures, which leaves the Series2 cards devoted entirely to ray tracing and scene geometry. Furthermore, the R2100 Caustic RT2 ray-tracing unit (RTU) can process up to 50 million incoherent rays per second. This amount is doubled with two RT2 chips on the R2500 board.
Installation of the card was simple, although be sure you install it on at least an 8 lane PCI-E slot. Most modern workstations will have plenty of these slots, so it will only be an issue on older workstation motherboards.
Once the drivers were updated (directly from the Caustic website), I tried out one of the demo scenes of a Porsche under neon lighting. On default Maya viewport rendering the scene took a fair amount of time to load, but using the Visualizer plug in with the Series2 R2100 card, the scene literally popped up on the viewport with reflections and lighting in all of its beautiful glory. The R2100 card has 4GB of memory for scene geometry on board (the R2500 has 16 GB) which will hold up to 60 million triangles. This makes huge scene sizes much easier to work with using the Caustic Series2 cards.
The rendering works in iterations so that the rendering is not perfectly "real time," but it's incredibly fast. Plus, I was able to move the camera about, change the focal length and adjust the color of the car with very, very fast updated rendering. Using the R2100 Series2 cards boosted viewport rendering nearly 200% over the default rendering for Maya 2013. Of course, you need a good 3D graphics card (I am using the Nvidia's K5000 Quardro card), but since the shading in a scene is passed over to the CPU, any graphics card you use will work more efficiently with a Series2 card installed as well.
The R2100 Series2 card simply cruised through any scene I threw at it, no matter what the size or settings in Maya 2013. Geometry for objects are visible and can be edited with results showing in the viewport almost immediately. Research indicates that the Series2 card can handle scenes with millions upon millions of polygons with no problem. I think only a professional setting with an absolutely huge amount of triangles and effects could even begin to slow this remarkable Series2 card down.
Caustic Professional is a company that is committed to making it easier for 3D artists to create. The PowerVR OpenRL technology is robust and they are working diligently to improve and extend it. Caustic has made their SDK (software development kit) free for developers and there are rumors that other 3D companies are looking to develop the technology for their 3D applications.
My own experience with the Visualizer for Maya and the R2100 Series2 card has been excellent. Both of them exceeded my expectations. Using a 2-year-old self-built workstation with an Intel CPU running at 3.2 ghz and an Nvidia K5000 Quardro card, I found that my work was much faster and I could follow through on lighting ideas without having to wait to see how the scene would render. In fact, the experience of working with the Series2 card reminded me a lot of creating game levels inside of a realtime game engine like Unreal.
Now, while there are some limitations to the cards and the Visualizer plug-in, like lack of support for Maya nHair, texture baking and subsurface scattering, these limitations are only for the moment. With the support of Imagination Technologies and the speedy development process at Caustic Professional, I expect that both the plug-in and the card will be updated many times a year. Already Caustic Professional has a beta out for 3DS Max support and have updated the Visualizer Plug in to support Windows 8.
The Series2 cards, both R2100 and the R2500, are cutting-edge hardware. I can't imagine that any major 3D studio wouldn't be using them in their workstations in the near future. Already Dell and HP have certified the cards and I suspect we will see a huge market for the hardware and the Visualizer Plug in in the coming year.
The Series2 cards from Caustic Professional are highly recommended for 3D professionals and the serious 3D artist who want the very best cutting-edge hardware at an affordable price. The R2100 card costs (as of May 17, 2013) $495 and the R2500 card is $995. Considering that you'd need several highend GPUs to even come close to the rendering power of the Caustic cards, the pricing is very competitive. You can purchase the cards directly from the Caustic.com store.
Caustic Professional has created breakthrough technology here and I'm very excited to watch it spread perhaps into the tablet and smart phone market. And congratulations to Caustic Professional for taking real-time viewport technology to the next level.
Full technical specifications for both Series2 cards are here. The support and forums at Caustic.com are very good. If you want more information, definitely check their FAQs, videos and forum posts. I really like the fact that both cards have low power requirements, so installing them won't require a PSU upgrade.
My sincere thanks to Caustic Professional for providing the R2100 Series2 board for review. Big clap on the back to Stephen Hoshaw for his support and help. And a shout out to Ryan Montrucchio for providing a Maya Mel script and for suggesting specific render settings to test the Caustic cards.
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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