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Caustic Graphics Ray Tracing Acceleration Technology Review

Author: Ryan Shrout
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Manufacturer: Caustic Graphics
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Closing Thoughts

Though fresh off the block, Caustic Graphics has a product and business model that has the potential to be very disruptive to the world of ray tracing and to rendering in general.  While Caustic claims that its hardware and software is not a competing product to the GPU or CPU of today, I don’t know if the likes of AMD, Intel and NVIDIA will see it that way.  The decision to only design a solution for the ray tracing bottleneck itself, leaving the GPU to handle the shading operations that it already does very well, gives the Caustic hardware a better chance of success.

While we did get a lot more detail about the hardware design from Caustic than I initially expected, there is still a lot wrapped in mystery about what it is a ray tracing accelerator card actually does.  We know that it is able to handle ray tracing calculations in a significantly faster and more efficient manner than a traditional GPU or CPU and that the software architecture behind it is clearly just as important (if not more so) as the hardware design itself.  It is a very scalable architecture and the installation of multiple CausticOne or CausticTwo cards will nearly improve performance linearly and with a very small 20 watt power footprint, I imagine that if the technology takes off, multi-RTPU systems will very popular in the professional world.


The CausticOne product being announced today is the FPGA implementation of the ray tracing processing unit that is already running faster than the best GPU-based real-time ray tracers.  The CausticTwo, built on custom ASIC, promises a 14x speed up in performance in ray tracing sometime in early 2010.  If the claims of linear scaling are true with multiple cards than that speed up can increase to 28x by simply adding another card – these are incredibly impressive performance enhancements for a rendering method that has been slow to evolve. 

Though our initial hopes for fully ray traced gaming engines is mostly shot for the next 5 years or so, Caustic says they will continue to pursue that goal while focusing on the prolific integration of ray traced computing in the professional market.  And that is really where they have the ability to make some money and push their technology further with future development. 

According to Caustic the first implementation of the CausticRT platform will cost a developer $4,000 and includes the CausticGL software stack, a single CausticOne card and a year of firmware and software updates.  That is actually a pretty reasonable cost for a high-end professional accelerator: an NVIDIA Quadro FX 5800 card will run you just over $3,000.

There is also an issue for the future of a desktop client implementation of the Caustic hardware.  It would be crazy for Caustic to think that a consumer would be willing to pay the same amount as a professional designer for a ray tracing accelerator.  Will Caustic offer up different versions of the hardware for different market segments?  It seems unlikely that would happen with such a small company and design team likely behind the hardware to begin with.  Just as we saw with the original AGEIA PhysX card, consumers are very price sensitive – selling a user another add-in card for their gaming PC is touchy and I would assume that a cost of no more than $199 would be required to get ANY kind of integration with the market.  Of course, I may just be getting ahead of myself – it could be 2011 before we see a consumer-friendly version of this product. 

Another thought that pops into our collective subconscious with referencing AGEIA is the possibility of an acquisition of Caustic Graphics by one of the big three: Intel, AMD or NVIDIA.  A similar transition of technology to PhysX could be easily imagined: a GPU vendor buys up the Caustic team for their hardware and software design, and either attempts to integrate the software on the buying company’s current hardware or integrates one of the Caustic ASICs on an existing graphics card.  With a modest power footprint of only 20 watts, both options are feasible. 

Whether or not the CausticRT platform can be a success depends on many factors including the ability for the technology to live up to its claims, its integration with professional ray tracing ISVs and how aggressively competitors like Intel, NVIDIA and AMD step up to the plate to counter the work the Caustic team has done.  All indications point to the start-up having a good sized head start in ray tracing acceleration and as is the case with all new companies like this, it will come down to the executive and engineering teams working together to properly capitalize on the advantages that exist WHILE they exist.  I know that I am personally excited about the changes that real-time ray tracing can bring to the computing world in general and eventually to the gaming markets if all goes according to plan.  For now, Caustic is on our short list of companies to keep an eye on.

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