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Digital Foundry vs. Unlimited Detail

The devil's in the detail.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Without a doubt, the technology story of the week is Euclideon's Unlimited Detail demo: an apparently revolutionary approach to graphics rendering that sees the end of polygons, replaced by billions upon billions of "atoms" that allow for an infinite level of detail in any given game scene. In short, Euclideon appears to have come up with a new approach to voxel rendering that seemingly has much potential.

At the time of writing, the demo has been viewed almost 1.6 million times on YouTube, and has engendered fierce debate on the internet with the harshest criticism coming from Minecraft developer Notch, calling out Euclideon's engine as "a scam".

"It's a very pretty and very impressive piece of technology, but they're carefully avoiding to mention any of the drawbacks, and they're pretending like what they're doing is something new and impressive. In reality, it's been done several times before," Notch observes.

"They're hyping this as something new and revolutionary because they want funding. It's a scam. Don't get excited. Or, more correctly, get excited about voxels, but not about the snake oil salesmen."

Other developers, including id software's John Carmack, have been more measured in their response, mostly because a variation of voxel technology - the Sparse Voxel Octree (SVO) - is one of the most promising approaches being considered for next-gen rendering, where the raw horsepower and RAM could conceivably be available to make the approach pay off. However, Carmack rules out a current-gen offering based on the Euclideon tech, something the Unlimited Detail company takes issue with.

Euclideon's latest Unlimited Detail demo has amassed over 1.6 million views on YouTube and has brought controversies surrounding the technology back into focus.

As it is, the technology itself isn't as new as you might think it is. Developer Bruce Robert Dell was known to have shown video demos to software developers back in 2008, and over the last few years has built up a small company and claims to have attracted significant investment. According to people who've seen Dell's 2008 presentation, his work actually stretches back several years before that.

"Last year we were just two people and I suppose we're what some people would call a garage job," Dell tells us.

"Since that time we've started a company, we have nine employees, we've received investors and got one of the largest grants in the country from the government. Our board of directors are some of the top people in Australian software, and our chairman of the board is the former CEO of one of Australia's largest technology companies. Having a proper company with employees has made a big difference."

While the scope of the operation has increased significantly and the demos have obviously improved over the years, it seems to be very difficult to get any kind of information from Euclideon about how Unlimited Detail works or even what the underlying principles are. Bruce says that he doesn't want to give his secrets away, however, he appears to have been more open about the technology back in 2008:

"The system isn't ray-tracing at all or anything like ray-tracing. Ray-tracing uses up lots of nasty multiplication and divide operators and so isn't very fast or friendly," Dell posted on the Beyond3D forum.

"Unlimited Detail is a sorting algorithm that retrieves only the 3D atoms (I won't say voxels any more it seems that word doesn't have the prestige in the games industry that it enjoys in medicine and the sciences) that are needed, exactly one for each pixel on the screen, it displays them using a very different procedure from individual 3D to 2D conversion, instead we use a mass 3D to 2D conversion that shares the common elements of the 2D positions of all the dots combined.

"And so we get lots of geometry and lots of speed, speed isn't fantastic yet compared to hardware, but it's very good for a software application that's not written for dual core. We get about 24-30FPS [at] 1024x768 for that demo of the pyramids of monsters."

As for the brand new Island video, Dell is open about the system specs required to run it and the performance he gets:

"The latest demo was running on our office laptop which is 2GHz Core i7. It ran at 20FPS [at] 1280x720 purely in software without touching the 3D part of the GPU, but we certainly haven't added all our optimisation yet. I think next time you will be pleasantly surprised," he reveals.