Is NT the Future of Graphics?

Microsoft Thinks So--And It Has Lots of Company

If Comdex is the full-service warehouse store of computer shows, SIGGRAPH is the toy shop--only the prettiest baubles and gewgaws are shown there. I've covered SIGGRAPH for 10 years, and I remember when PCs were the pesky creatures that got under the feet of the purpose-built desk-size workstations.

Today, many of those old-line graphics companies are gone or changed radically: Workstations look like oversized PCs, and the rivalry over host operating systems is less heated. Almost no one sneers at the mention of PC-based graphics because so much good work is done on hardware you can buy at a big mall.

Graphics is moving into every segment of the business market and Windows NT is the right platform for many graphics-laden applications, such as video editing, modeling, computer-aided design (CAD), and structural analysis. This stuff is becoming more mainstream all the time; businesses produce moving-image demos and presentations with lots of pinball graphics. When was the last time you saw a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet without a big 3D chart? Although not too many corporations use 3D graphics or worry about Gouraud shading for the business pitch now, more will in the future.

Microsoft at SIGGRAPH
Today, Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), maker of the Iris, Indigo, and Reality Engine UNIX workstations, dominates the computer graphics field. The company sells a lot of hardware to Hollywood for creating and manipulating pictures. SIGGRAPH had dozens of booths with add-ons for SGI products, including morphing, motion-capture, and video-editing tools. SGI's hardware is still the dominant platform.

But Microsoft has its eyes on SGI's turf. The world's best-known software company is moving into computer graphics big time. Microsoft bought Softimage, Inc., the Canadian software company that has been SGI's biggest title for a long time. Microsoft bought Altamira and Altamira's Windows-based drawing program Composer, acquired Reality Labs for Render Morphics, and hired Alvy Ray Smith and Jim Kajiya, two longtime pioneers in the computer graphics field. There were rumblings that Softimage products could go NT. Daniel Small, Softimage product manager, loudly hinted that the company was previewing an Alpha version in the back room. Expect a first cut at a really killer graphics application from Microsoft within the next 18 months.

SGI's reply has been manyfold. Some time ago, they bought MIPS Technologies, Inc., which makes SGI's CPUs. Then, they merged with Alias and Wavefront Technologies, Inc., two 3D software companies that sell a lot of SGI products, to form the subsidiary Alias/ Wavefront. SGI also bought part of NetPower, an NT workstation company that uses MIPS chips. But only time will tell if SGI can compete against PCs.

Non-Intel NT? For Whom?
"Windows NT" doesn't just mean the Intel-CPU-based NT that most people use. With version 3.1 came two other versions of NT--one for the MIPS RISC CPU and one for Digital's Alpha series of RISC CPUs. With NT version 3.51 came a version for the Motorola PowerPC chip. All four CPU families were at SIGGRAPH, although you had to look pretty hard to find PowerPC systems. Of the three non-Intel chipmakers, Digital was the most visible. Representatives had a full-court press on, touting the Alpha as the fastest general-purpose CPU on the market and the right platform for NT. A walk down the aisles uncovered at least five Alpha-based PC companies: Aspen Systems, BVC, Carrera Computers, DeskStation Technology, and Digital. Not surprisingly, Alpha NT systems were showcasing high-powered graphical applications--applications that need almost limitless horsepower.

Digital's current speed champion is the 300-MHz Alpha 21164, which runs so hot it needs a 4" heat sink. Microprocessor Report says it's "at least 2.5 times faster than the best shipping processors" in the other NT platforms. And Microsoft recently made a major alliance with Digital, just about guaranteeing that Alpha will be first among equals. Digital has bought into NT in a big way, perhaps to the detriment of their much larger UNIX business.

But can you use a PC that doesn't have Intel inside? Microsoft would say yes, although they haven't started pushing it yet. Every version of NT has a DOS-like command prompt which will run .BAT files or NT .CMD files. At the show, I learned that non-Intel NT has an emulator for 16-bit Windows applications.

Most programs should run, although more slowly, on any version of NT without modification. Amusingly enough, the emulator won't run 32-bit applications.

"I guess 32-bit applications are supposed to all be native," said representatives from Radiosity Software, which ported its Scene Machine flying logo software from the Amiga to Windows NT.

That most programs will run without modification is still quite an accomplishment: It means Microsoft wrote a 486 emulator and squirreled it away in the operating system. It's also a mark of just how large a piece of code NT is that this huge feature could go unnoticed.

But no one wants to run in emulation mode: Ask any PowerMac owner about it. Speed will always be an issue when one computer pretends to be another. What users really want to know is: Will my favorite applications be available on the non-Intel platforms? The current answer is: "That depends."

Upon my return from SIGGRAPH, I literally tripped over the box containing Microsoft Office for Windows NT; it claims to run on all four platforms. (Interestingly enough, however, the Reviewer's Guide doesn't mention the PowerPC.) Rumors at SIGGRAPH were that migrating Word and Excel to NT on an Alpha was more complex than it's supposed to be and that Digital gladly lent at least 10 programmers to the port.

Certainly, moving applications to non-Intel NT is harder than it should be. There is no cross-compiler for NT; if you want to run your program on an Alpha, you have to compile it on an Alpha. That's an onerous burden for a small software company, which would have to own one of each platform at $7000+ each.

I suggested to Blaise Fanning, the vice president of engineering for DeskStation Technology, that his company set up a "teleport," a dial-in or Internet-accessible center where small companies could migrate their software. He was excited. DeskStation will do well only if non-Intel NT does, so helping the little guys move their software is important to him. (Microsoft has such a center, but you have to fly to Redmond to use it.)

DeskStation makes both Alpha and MIPS CPU cards, so enterprising developers could get one of each. However, they'll also have to get two hard drives, one to boot each version of NT because the code base is completely different for each CPU.

Some high-end software packages are definitely on the move to non-Intel NT; Elastic Reality has moved its morphing program to all four versions. Most representatives from middle-of-the-road computer graphics companies, such as Aldus with Photoshop and HSC Software with Kai's Power Tools, looked blank when asked about NT, let alone non-Intel NT. They were making sure their programs ran on NT, a requirement for Windows 95 compliance, but nothing more.

Some mainline companies are focusing on the importance of NT. The next version of Autodesk Animator, it's rumored, will run only on NT and will probably run only on Intel and Alpha at delivery time. NT's support for up to four CPUs in a box makes it ideal for rendering and other tasks that can be easily subdivided.

NT is on the cusp of becoming the computer graphics and "professional" Windows operating system, but Microsoft isn't evangelizing it--yet. I'm sure there's a boot camp running somewhere in Redmond right now, to turn out NT evangelists. Those people will be turned loose when Windows 95's many gaps and flaws become troublesome, but not before. All the signs still point to Windows 95 as a stalking-horse for a grand, unified NT+95 in the future, but that's still 18 months to two years away.

Video Editing on NT
At least 20 companies make video-capture boards for the PC, ranging from those that grab a barely recognizable picture to $5000+ systems, such as the Targa and TrueVision boards. Anyone who's edited video can tell you why there's such a demand. Videocassette-based editing is tedious and slow; every edit decision means that the video decks rewind, come up to speed, edit, and stop. Trimming off a frame here or there means repeating the whole process.

"Non-linear editing," computer-based editing, requires acres of disk space: at least 1GB per 10 minutes of video even at relatively low resolutions. Blasting all that data from hard disk to screen requires lots of CPU horsepower and a good operating system to boot. But if it cuts a day from their post-production schedule, producers want it. If they can own it, all the better.

NT had a presence in non-linear editing at SIGGRAPH, with a larger one on the horizon. Adobe Premiere, the market leader, will run on all versions of Windows, but Adobe Systems, Inc., gave no sign of having a 32-bit version yet. Digital Processing Systems' representatives were showing off their Perception Video Recorder, which runs only on NT. It's a $2000 PCI card, designed to play back true broadcast-quality video. The $1500 add-on video-capture card lets you complete the whole I/O cycle.

One clever bit of engineering in this board is how it stores the video. Instead of competing with the main hard disk I/O for bandwidth, the Perception has its own SCSI bus. All the video traffic stays off the main bus, except when an image is displayed. That means your computer isn't spending 80% of its time just pumping bits around.

Most stand-alone video-capture boxes bolt onto the PC; their files must be transferred to be altered in Adobe PhotoShop or a similar program. You can't just open the F: drive and copy a video frame. The Perception, on the other hand, allows you to do just that; its creators used NT's File Manager to peruse the files on the disk. That means you can back them up, too. It's a subtle, but clever, wrinkle.

Complementing the video card is editing software, and the company in:sync pushed Speed Razor Pro, a worthy NT-based non-linear package for all but PowerPC platforms.

SIGGRAPH Goes Hollywood
The most fun at SIGGRAPH is the film and video program, a two-hour show of the best and brightest in computer graphics. This year's program was dazzling and included material created all over the world, computed on every sort of CPU. There were "after hours" projects, done after work in large companies, but not really any "home-brew" ones--I suspect NT will change that.

David Em, one of the Electronic Theatre judges, told me that they received more than 400 entries this year. There were some pieces that were subtly computer-enhanced--so subtle that the most experienced watchers argued for a half an hour about what was computer-generated and what wasn't. That bodes well for an exciting future, albeit a more synthetic one.

Coming Up

SIGGRAPH highlighted some local companies that use NT in a big way. I'm going to try to visit them. That, plus using Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) as the primary network protocol on NT and looking at Microsoft Office for Windows NT will be up next. If any of those lovely, fast, non-Intel CPUs I was promised show up, I'll let you know.

Contact Info
Desk Station Technology
Phone: 800-793-3375, Fax: 913-599-4024
Digital Processing Systems
Phone: 606-371-5533, Fax: 606-371-3729
Elastic Reality
Phone: 800-949-2843, Fax: 608-271-1988
Phone: 408-922-9787, Fax: 408-922-9857
in: sync
Phone: 301-320-0220, Fax: 301-320-0335
Phone: 800-801-0900, Fax: 408-522-2666
Phone: 800-847-6111, Fax: 913-228-8099
Phone: 713-464-2990, Fax: 713-827-7540
Radiosity Software
Phone: 612-787-0855, Fax: 612-787-0856
TAGS: Windows 8
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