By Will Gee
Professional 3-D graphics users have completely different needs
than the average user. Architects, designers, multimedia developers,
engineers, and broadcast and film professionals rely on computer-generated
images to create 3-D environments, enhance advertising, convey
abstract ideas and capture the imagination of the masses. Creating
these 3-D images requires a lot of time, talent and powerful equipment.
In the past, software and hardware offerings have centered around
pricey RISC-based UNIX workstations from Silicon Graphics (SGI)
and others. But the introduction of professional-grade 3-D software
for Windows NT promises to lower the price of admission.
Several factors have accelerated this push into NT territory.
Windows NT offers native OpenGL support right out of the box.
OpenGL is an industry standard for precision 3-D graphics. Because
Windows NT is platform independent, different versions of it can
run on various microprocessors (Intel, MIPS, Digital Equipment
Corp.'s Alpha and PowerPC). In addition, the performance of Intel's
new Pentium Pro line of processors rivals that of traditional
RISC processors, for about half the price. Finally, Windows NT
can run on a multiprocessor machine to provide the scalable performance
serious 3-D work demands, especially with applications that support
distributed rendering. This enables a network of PCs to share
the task of rendering (a setup often referred to as a "rendering
In the past, you needed a separate VGA card to take advantage
of OpenGL hardware, but graphics systems are now evolving into
single PCI boards that integrate 2-D and 3-D graphics components.
The Diamond FireGL combines S3 Vision968 and 3Dlabs' Glint 300SX
processors on a single board that supports 2-D and 3-D acceleration
at resolutions up to 1600x1200. Accelerators with large amounts
of dedicated Z-buffer and texture memory can cut your rendering
time. With its 8MB of VRAM and up to 12MB of DRAM for local memory,
the FireGL makes even the most powerful consumer graphics boards
look underwhelming. Vendors such as Omnicomp, ELSA and Fujitsu
offer similar products. Farther down the road, the professional
market can expect a single processor to handle both 2-D and 3-D
acceleration, eliminating today's need for multiple processors.
Professional-grade software offerings for Windows NT include AutoCAD
and Lightscape Visualization System. SoftImage 3D for Windows
NT features an interface indistinguishable from its SGI counterpart.
Kinetix's 32-bit 3D Studio MAX incorporates distributed rendering
under Windows NT, a feature expected in future releases of applications
such as SoftImage 3D for Windows NT. Applications in this category
provide software development kits for those who need to create
new effects or extend functionality.
On the hardware side, an excellent example of a high-end Windows
NT 3-D workstation is the Intergraph StudioZ family of single-,
dual- and quad-Pentium Pro processor systems with serial digital
video and OpenGL acceleration. If the power of a 200MHz Intel
Pentium Pro isn't enough, Windows NT can take advantage of RISC-based
platforms. Deskstation's Raptor Reflex Workstation offers a 366MHz
Digital Alpha 21164 processor.
Despite all this new speed and power, die-hard 3-D professionals
won't cast aside their UNIX/RISC environments overnight. Many
animators and production houses already have hundreds of thousands
of dollars invested in equipment. They'll probably incorporate
NT hardware into their mix of SGI machines. Fortunately, Windows
NT provides the strong network protocol support necessary for
accessing common data with existing SGI workstations. The Windows
NT 3-D graphics platform offers professionals, old and new, an
alternative to expensive RISC workstations.