With SIGGRAPH 2019 kicking off, there will be plenty of creative and workstation news coming out over the next few days. We’ve already seen the start with announcements coming from Blender and Luxion, but NVIDIA made a surprise announcement.
Last year, we saw the launch of the Quadro RTX series at SIGGRAPH, bringing the first steps to real-time ray-tracing, just before the official GeForce RTX launch a week later. This time there aren’t any major product launches, but it doesn’t mean that nothing interesting is going on.
The biggest surprise to come from NVIDIA was unrestricted access to 30-bit color in OpenGL applications. This has been one of the biggest reasons to push vendors to use NVIDIA’s Quadro line of graphics cards, but enabling the feature on GeForce and TITAN cards is very interesting.
First of all, we need to clarify what exactly is going on, and why it’s a big deal. Ever since the Quadro line launched some 20 years ago, one of its biggest features was 30-bit color, or 10-bits per channel (one and the same), compared to 24-bit color or 8-bits per channel. In creative workloads, those two extra bits completely eliminate color banding most commonly seen in gradients; think sunrises and sunsets. For movie production and marketing materials, smooth transitions of color were important from a quality aspect.
However, with the rise of HDR (high dynamic range) films and now games, it’s becoming more important to have real support for that extra color depth. For a while now, NVIDIA has allowed 30-bit color in DirectX, required for the HDR features to work in games and video decoding. But as more people take up streaming and even meddle with video editing, being able to record and edit those videos in their native 30-bits has proven problematic. Most creative software like Adobe Premiere use OpenGL as the backbone, where those extra bits go ignored on an incompatible GPU (note that the situation has been the same for AMD’s Radeon Pro vs. Radeon). As of today, anyone with a Pascal or Turing architecture GPU will be able to enable 30-bit color with the latest Studio Ready driver.
This new support comes at a strange time, as the whole Quadro line of GPUs has continued to suffer from exclusive features being removed, and it is raising questions about what is that makes Quadros so special anymore. When the TITAN Xp was released, a number of software optimizations were transferred over from the Quadros. If you are a regular reader of ours, then you’ll know that there are only a handful of occasions where Quadros are allowed to shine over their GeForce cousins. This feature dilution of 30-bit color is yet another strike against the Quadro, leaving ECC memory, large framebuffers, multi-display sync, higher NVENC stream allowances, and high-level CAD and simulation software as the remaining features.
It’s not just desktop GPUs affected here, but laptops as well, for the growing number of mobile workstations. These new studio drivers add more than just 30-bit color support, but also unlock a multitude of creative software to work with NVIDIA’s RTX features. This was ideally what NVIDIA wanted the press to focus on, but when a two-decade-old feature suddenly becomes available across the full product stack, it kind of takes precedence.
A number of applications will have performance boosts coming with the Studio drivers, such as OTOY Octane, Blender, Arnold, Cinema 4D, Substance Painter, and MAGIX VEGAS Pro, but there’s a lot more going on, more specifically with RTX.
In terms of games supporting RTX features, it’s been a bit slow, but that’s to be expected for a brand new feature. In the creative market with 3D designers, video editors, and visual effects artists, RTX is a real game-changer and you don’t need to look far at the explosive support NVIDIA is getting from professionals all over the world.
We already mentioned Blender and Luxion Keyshot earlier, but it goes much further than that. There are now over 40 applications that have or will have RTX support. Adobe Substance Painter will make use of RTX for baking textures, Autodesk Flame will use Tensor cores for compositing. D5 Fusion will use RTX via its Unreal engine support. Daz 3D will make use of Iray for iterative rendering, using RTX features. Foundry Modo, like Blender, will make use of NVIDIA’s OptiX pipeline, with RTX and Tensor being used. All of this is on top of what we’ve seen already with the likes of Octane, Redshift, V-Ray, and DaVinci Resolve.
RTX support comes down to two main branches, RT cores, and Tensor Cores. Branching Volume Hierarchy (BVH) is the important aspect of the RT cores, it’s what does the collision detection of ray casts against objects, and can massively speed up 3D rendering (from hours per frame, to minutes in some cases), but is the feature most underutilized right now. The Tensor cores gets the lion’s share of support, as it’s much more universal, used in AI-assisted tasks such as denoising, machine learning and training, but it’s being used more creatively to stylize video and even create original artwork (or even music).
Pretty much all of this extra RTX support from software is yet again, not limited to Quadros either. All of the Turing cards, from the GeForce RTX 2060 up to the TITAN RTX, can leverage the features of the software. On the mobile front, we are seeing more Studio Ready laptops being released from the likes of Dell, HP, Lenovo, and even BOXX, bringing the total to 27 models, each with GeForce and Quadro RTX GPUs.
It’s an exciting time in the workstation space with RTX around. The huge performance boosts are somewhat comical when you first look at them due to the rather extreme performance speed-up they can provide. The amount of software support coming wave after wave is making artists pay attention. But even hobbyists and part-time gamers can get their gaming rigs to perform double duty with a creative streak.
SIGGRAPH 2019 is only getting started, so there is bound to be more to look out for. If you want to know where the industry is heading, this is what you need to pay attention to.