Just how awesome is the GPU?

So awesome.

(That’s how we put it in highly technical jargon, anyway.)

You’d be forgiven for being skeptical of what photorealistic rendering’s future might be. After all, we’ve been hearing about how raytracing and better-looking, more realistic renders would someday revolutionize 3D visuals, and that, thanks to the GPU, you’d get this power in speeds approaching real-time. But the delivery has taken some time.

This isn’t a demo of some futuristic research tech at SIGGRAPH, though: it’s a product in beta right now you can use, today. (A beta license, amazingly, costs just EUR99 during the beta.) Friend of the site Marc has kept us posted on his new employer, and it’s amazing stuff. Refractive Software’s Octane Render does photorealistic rendering right on the GPU.

And it kicks the CPU’s sorry ass. Think 10-50x increases in performance over CPU-based rendering: not in theory, or in theoretical benchmarks, but in actual, real-world rendering. That makes the render fast enough that you can see it, so fast it can actually change your workflow. This isn’t saving time that you’d be looking at a progress bar, as with many CPU benchmarks. This means the ability to work with photorealistic imagery live on your desktop.

Do you have a CPU whose day you want to ruin? Show it this chart:

(Okay, okay, nothing against the CPU. CPUs are still ideal for doing tasks like audio processing, which tend to be less parallel and more dependent on timing. With the CPU blazing through audio and the GPU doing these kinds of visuals live, you have complete digital immersion on a basic, affordable computer.)

It’s about time, of course. I remember Apple making similar arguments about the coming dominance of the GPU years ago, but we haven’t actually seen it enter the world of visuals.

Here’s the other good news: this doesn’t cost a fortune. Even the demo above is using NVIDIA GTX 480 cards, which have a street price now under US$500. Sure, getting two of them is a little pricey, but this essentially amounts to using what once were considered “desktop” cards, not only-for-the-wealthy workstation models.

Oh yeah, and that whole thing about how the desktop computer is over? That could prove to be very, very wrong if computers open up these kinds of visuals.

It’s fast, but it also looks completely, utterly stunning. Check out the gallery:

That gallery has been populated just by the amazing work customers of the beta test are already doing.

This is very relevant to live visuals, too, because with fairly modest hardware rigs, we’re approaching stuff that could be modeled in real-time.


The future isn’t what it used to be – in a good way.

  • Orubasarot

    Where's OpenCL?  Building a workstation is hard enough already.  I guess if you really want in on GPGPU right now, and you want 3 outputs, you have to go SLI with Nvidia.  I think I'd rather wait this gen out.

  • Peter Kirn

    Well, you do have a range of NV cards supporting CUDA. And you have your choice of OS (Linux, Windows, Mac, 64-bit). And you can build a new machine for this for well less than the price some renderers charge you for a one-seat license. And those cards in turn support OpenCL.

    But I am likewise interested to see how the specs evolve. Right now, a lot of the GPGPU stuff I've seen has indeed been focused on CUDA.

  • Peter Kirn

    Also, in this case, building a workstation I'd say isn't that hard.

  • massta

    The only thing impressive to me is the price.  Speed is found in other software environments, just not as fast over an entire viewing area.  I suppose we will see more of this in other packages soon.  I didn't see anything about this being a plug-in for other software.

  • TweakingKnobs


    And there is also the open source alternative :





    Open source baby !!!

  • Peter Kirn

    Oh, I don't expect this to be the only option. That's my point – if this is possible, it means good things for coming GPU solutions.

    And @massta: if other environments can match the speed, but aren't as fast and can't cover the same viewing area, then they *can't match the speed*. Am I missing something?

  • Peter Kirn

    I will say, though, even though I think the open source alternative here isn't quite competitive, entirely, technically — I absolutely adore its aesthetic, the pointillist look you get in real-time. I wonder if that could be adjusted for real-time output?

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  • Steve Elbows

    It does bode well for the future. But looking at the actual quality on that clip whilst moving, framerate & resolution, Id say we need graphics cards to be at least 10-20 times more powerful than they currently are in order to make this stuff really great for realtime applications.

  • massta

    I agree with Steve Elbows.  There is still a long way to go.  But I'm happy with constraints and open to more functionality.  I'd to see more CPU intensive computations being done at the GPU level.  Like real-time physics and object loading and unloading.  I'll sacrifice photo-realism for that any day.

  • MrMoo

    The future implications for  the entertainment industry side of things (i.e. render farms) are enormous. I'm also deeply impressed with the speed for which this can allow artists (like me) to do target renders for concept art. Fantastic.

    I have a question, however. Is there any progress being made to allow for the use of the GPU in programming languages such as Processing, openFrameworks, and Cinder?


  • datapure

    "Oh yeah, and that whole thing about how the desktop computer is over?"

    i've been getting into conversations about this lately with visualists/audio engineers, and i feel like the way to go is rackmountable boxes… yes they take up more space, but you just CAN'T compare laptops to desktops for price:power ratio, you will ALWAYS get more bang for the buck going desktop, and rackmounting it will make it portable, easier to cool, etc. etc.

    although i must point out, the VJs tend to want to go laptop, while the audio guys see the benefits of the rackmount (since audio engineers will tend to have more rack gear anyways).

    as for the sheer power of GPUs nowadays, it really is just getting kind of ridiculous. the singularity approaches, friends!

  • TweakingKnobs

    About processing and  this gpu  thing , check out openCL for java :



    cheers !

  • MrMoo

    Thanks Tweak!

    Wonderful link.


    datapure, I have conflicting opinions on rackmountable computers. I agree that price to power a rackmount is the better deal…

    however, when you consider that you need a keyboard, a monitor, and powerconnections to go with that rackmount it gets clumsy and irritating.

    all of these things i had to deal with when i made an audio rackmount for DJing and recording production. it's this frustrationg that's made me sit it out and wait. for what? i have no idea. any recommendations?